Anti-Arafat feelings rise among activists - some see PLO split

Members of quarreling Palestinian factions who met at a recent United Nations-sponsored peace seminar in Copenhagen found - to their surprise - that they had one thing in common. ``We found that we were all fed up with Abu Ammar, that we blamed 100 percent of the PLO's problems on him, and that really, it is time for him to go,'' said one of the participants.

Abu Ammar is the nom de guerre of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and founder of its largest faction, Al-Fatah. More than any other man, Mr. Arafat is the internationally recognized symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

But increasingly, the PLO leader finds himself bitterly attacked by Palestinian hardliners and moderates. Anti-Arafat feelings among activists run so high, Palestinians interviewed say, that many fear the organization is in danger of formally splitting for the second time in three years.

Hardliners base their opposition to Arafat on what they see as his tendency toward moderating Palestinian demands for independent statehood by agreeing to a confederation on the West Bank with Jordan. The hardliners reject the notion that Palestinian grievances can be redressed through negotiations with Israel. They urge Arafat to restore Palestinian unity and rebuild the movement's military strength.

Moderates say there is no hope of militarily defeating Israel. They want Arafat to patch up relations with Jordan's King Hussein and find a way into an international peace conference.

Both sides seem equally disgusted by Arafat's inability to decisively choose either course. While Arafat vacillates, they say, the PLO is losing its hard-won credibility as the only organization that can speak for the Palestinians.

``Arafat's play is one of political impotence while his opponents are still effective actors,'' says Assad Abdul Rahman, a longtime PLO activist and one-time spokesman for Arafat. ``King Hussein is not sitting still. His political credibility is gathering momentum.''

Arafat recently inflamed critics again by simultaneously making overtures to Syrian-backed radical Palestinian groups and sending Hani Hassan, a close adviser and moderate, to Amman. Mr. Hassan reportedly explored the possibility of a PLO-Jordan rapprochement with Jordanian officials.

The result, Arafat critics said, was that both moderates and hardliners felt they had been tricked into believing Arafat wanted to reconcile with their side.

``The PLO and Al-Fatah are losing, they are growing weaker every day,'' says Ibrahim Abu Ayash, a hard-line member of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian ``parliament-in-exile'') and frequent critic of Arafat. ``Abu Ammar is basically the core of the problem, and many in the central committee see it that way. I am expecting troubles in Fatah.''

The first split within Fatah occured in 1983, when some senior officials rebelled against Arafat's leadership. The Fatah rebels joined other Palestinian factions based including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian communists in Damascus, and denounced Arafat's mainstream PLO as corrupt and willing to sell out the Palestinians. With Syrian backing, the Fatah rebels attacked Arafat and loyalist fighters in Tripoli, Lebanon. Eventually, Arafat and his troops were evacuated to Tunis.

Arafat's leadership of the PLO, the umbrella organization for the bewildering array of Palestinian factions, has been questioned by at least some Palestinians since September 1982. That was when he agreed to lead his men from Beirut after Israel's invasion of Lebanon and subsequent siege and bombardment of the capital.

After Arafat and the Palestinian fighters left, Israeli-backed Christian militiamen entered the undefended Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, killing hundreds of people as Israeli troops ringed the camps. Many Palestinians have never forgiven Arafat for evacuating Beirut and leaving the camps unprotected.

Israel's 1982 smashing of Arafat's military infrastructure in Lebanon is widely viewed as a turning point, both for Arafat and the PLO. When the PLO was driven from Beirut, it lost its last springboard to launch armed attacks against Israel, and the last home where it had enjoyed freedom to operate politically and militarily.

Since then, the PLO has suffered internal divisions, the waning of its influence in the Arab world, the failure of its efforts to jointly seek with Jordan's King Hussein the convening of a Middle East peace conference, Israel's bombing of the PLO's Tunis headquarters, and then its expulsion from Jordan and more recent departure from Tunis.

Arafat's efforts to reestablish military credibility have focused on Lebanon - where he has poured money, men, and arms back into refugee camps in the south and in Beirut's suburbs. According to reports, a PLO spokesman in Baghdad last week said the organization had decided to give armed struggle against Israel priority over the peace process. Arafat has enjoyed some success in reestablishing his men in Lebanon, but faces an array of determined opponents, ranging from the Syrian-backed Amal Shiite militia to the Israeli Air Force, which regularly bombs Fatah targets in the camps.

Even the PLO's veto power over Mideast peace moves seems to be waning. King Hussein, after announcing Feb. 19 that he was severing ties with the PLO leadership, embarked on a plan to reassert Jordan's influence on the West Bank. He expelled Fatah officials from Jordan, closed Fatah offices, and announced a five-year, $1.3 billion development plan for the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He approved Israel's appointment of Palestinian mayors to head West Bank towns and sent Jordanians to secretly negotiate with Israel over the reopening of an Arab-owned bank on the West Bank. He has done this with little criticism from the rest of the Arab world.

Arafat, the charismatic leader whose fuzzy face, kaffiyeh-wrapped head, and khakis are internationally familiar, has stayed in power until now both because of his personal popularity among Palestinian refugees and his control of the PLO's finances. He personally receives the millions that Saudi Arabia pays the PLO annually. Not only are the organization's bureacrats dependent on him for their livelihoods, but thousands of Palestinian families receive payments from the PLO that Arafat must release. Arafat also pays the salaries of the largest number of fighters, Palestinian sources say.

``Arafat is still the strongest Palestinian leader, taken alone,'' says Dr. Rahman. ``But he's losing popularity and credibility daily. He has antagonized his own central committee. It is a miracle he's stayed in power until now.''

One of Arafat's strongest remaining assets, critics concede, is the intense emotional commitment thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps still feel for the man.

``It is hard for us to convince Abu Ammar he must change when public opinion polls like the one done on the West Bank recently show that 80 percent of the people still support him,'' acknowledged one Arafat opponent.

Those who argue that Arafat must go say his continued popularity among Palestinians is more a result of the lack of a visible successor than belief that Arafat is following the right course of action.

The coming months, Arafat's opponents say, will be critical ones for the future of both the PLO and its chairman. Arafat will have to choose whether to make concessions to King Hussein and try again to reach an international conference, or to reconcile with the hard-line factions who reject the notion of negotiations.

Few of those interviewed were optimistic that Arafat will make a clear-cut decision soon enough to rescue the PLO from political irrelevance.

``The PLO may have reached the end in terms of its current organizational, political, and leadership manifestations,'' says Rahman. ``It is my right to dream that a new Palestinian movement will reemerge, even if the PLO is destroyed.''

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