PLO Perils

ISRAELI and PLO negotiators emerged from Cairo this week, bravely predicting that both sides will agree to the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho by the Dec. 13 deadline set during September's peace accord.

Yet beneath the public assertions of progress, the negotiations are proving very difficult, and the dynamics inside both groups, particularly in the PLO, have been harmed. No irreparable damage has been done. But the levels of suspicion and violence and disillusionment are rising. Israel, with more media savvy and with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington this week, has sought to portray itself as the principal victim of terror. Yet both sides are guilty of provocations. Some 10 Israelis and 20 Palestinians have been killed since Sept. 13.

At a minimum, both sides must be reminded of what they signed on Sept. 13. The PLO has been demanding sole control of the bridges in Jericho. That was never part of the deal. More important, the Israelis, who hold most of the cards, have been playing a dangerous game by backing off the spirit if not the letter of their withdrawal from Gaza. They have proposed kilometer-wide borders around Gaza and its 19 settlements, huge swaths in such a tiny strip. They are arguing that troop ``withdrawal'' may mean instead troop ``redeployment'' in Gaza - with Israeli forces given access to Gaza's roads.

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Certainly Israeli settlers in Gaza must be protected. But this must be arranged in a way that gives Palestinians real autonomy.

What most needs telling 10 weeks after September's historic agreement is that not only is any Palestinian consensus falling apart, so is the PLO. The two largest PLO factions support the agreement, but a dozen others do not. Now 30 percent of Yasser Arafat's Fatah oppose it. The word on the ground is that Arafat has been tricked into doing Israel's work by agreeing to police Gaza. This perception led to the assassination of three senior PLO leaders in recent weeks.

No aid has yet reached the territories. That comes after Dec. 13. In the meantime, all Mr. Arafat can show his people is that 660 prisoners have been released, 90 percent of whom were within 45 days of release anyway. Some 12,000 remain in prison.

Ironically, the PLO is Israel's best hope for stability; it needs support. Arafat, autocratic, must delegate more. Appointing himself head of the PLO redevelopment council this week was a mistake. By the Nov. 23 Paris meeting on trade, labor, commerce, and banking, he should find a different PLO economic czar.

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