PLO Weighs Its Survival Options

Leaders are caught between demands of peace process and competition from Hamas radicals

HAMSTRUNG by political isolation and empty coffers, the Palestine Liberation Organization is trying to survive as a major player in Middle East affairs by showing flexibility toward the United States-led peace process.But Palestinian officials concede - and Jordanian and Western analysts concur - that flexibility might not be enough to regain the diplomatic credibility and support the PLO enjoyed before it backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf crisis. The PLO officials worry that circumstances are pushing them to publicly accept the key US condition for the peace process - namely, allowing residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to take part in peace talks as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Such a decision, the Palestinians say, would result in the PLO's exclusion from the political scene, the relinquishing of independent Palestinian representation, and a separation between the Palestinians of the occupied territories and the diaspora. Another key concern is that any conciliatory moves might play into the hands of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that emerged on the Israeli-occupied territories a few months after the intifadah (uprising) began in December 1987. "No Muslim has the right to compromise one iota of Palestinian land," says Ibrahim Ghoseh, a Hamas spokesman. "We believe that the current proposals are capitulationist plans that aim at guaranteeing the security and interests of the Jewish entity." So far, therefore, PLO officials have only welcomed "in principle" the formation of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation - provided that the PLO retains the right to name the Palestinian members and that the team include representatives from inside and outside the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem (which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.) The PLO leadership is not ready to make this an official policy change, unless it receives assurances that the US will accept a PLO role and that peace talks will lead to territorial concessions by Israel, say analysts close to the organization. But the PLO's room for maneuver is clearly limited. The US is unlikely to accept a visible PLO role, Western diplomats point out, since Israel is not ready to talk to the organization. PLO officials admit the organization has never been as vulnerable, isolated, and more "unacceptable" to Arab and other governments. Immediately after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, the oil-rich Gulf states turned off the financial-aid tap. With Saudi Arabia alone supplying $6 million annually to the Palestinian cause, this translates into a huge loss. In addition, the Gulf crisis sharply curtailed remittances from Palestinian workers in the region. PLO officials worry that deteriorating economic conditions in the occupied territories could take some steam out of the intifadah. Furthermore, many Palestinians blame the PLO leadership's actions for the persecution they have suffered in Kuwait as alleged collaborators with Iraq. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, according to Palestinian officials, is being given the cold shoulder by Gulf states and Egypt. Jordan, which suffered politically and financially for not joining the US-led alliance against Iraq, is in no position to help. Arafat's mainstream al-Fatah group achieved a reconciliation of sorts with Syria last month, which had long supported radical PLO splinter groups. But last week's Lebanese Army takeover of PLO strongholds in south Lebanon enraged many Palestinians, who see the move as encouraged, if not engineered, by Syria - despite assurances to the contrary. The PLO says that refugee camps in south Lebanon could be vulnerable to attack by Israel, Syria, or Lebanese militias. Palestinian analysts close to PLO leaders argue that the crackdown on Palestinians in Kuwait and on the PLO's military presence in Lebanon could be part of a concerted campaign to get the organization to accept the American conditions. Western diplomats disagree, but say the situation in Lebanon and Kuwait has upped the ante for the PLO. Palestinian analysts say the PLO has two options at this stage: to play for time until international conditions improve in its favor or accept the formation of a Jordanian-Palestinian team that excludes the organization. Both options, the analysts say, pose major risks, so the PLO is steering a middle course by trying to modify rather than reject outright the US conditions. US Secretary of State James Baker III has met with pro-PLO Palestinians four times since the end of the Gulf war. Two West Bank residents, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, are in Washington to push for separate Palestinian representation and negotiations based on United Nations resolutions calling for an Israeli withdrawal in return for peace.

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