TUNIS — AT a meeting for Palestinian contractors on May 29, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat gave a speech packed with anecdotes that made the audience laugh at its irony, and even brought some to tears.
But before the speech was over, Mr. Arafat, as he has done more than once in recent weeks, raised both ire and eyebrow.
The chairman jumped from one subject to another in this speech, but made his message clear: The deal with Israel is far from adequate, but he has not betrayed his people's cause.
``It is the most we could get in the worst situation possible,'' he said, applauded by the contractors who attended from the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip to discuss their role in building a Palestinian entity.
In his attempt to rally his supporters, however, he provoked Israeli anger when he drew parallels between the autonomy agreement he signed with Israel and a 7th-century pact that the Prophet Muhammed reached with the Quraysh clan, who had initially refused to convert to Islam in Saudi Arabia.
PLO officials present immediately exchanged meaningful looks. Arafat had repeated the very words he used in a mosque in South Africa less than three weeks earlier, knowing the implications they had for the Israeli government and public opinion.
Some Israelis saw in Arafat's reference to the Hudaybiyyah pact proof that the Palestinian leader would renege on his agreement with Israel.
But a reading of the full text indicates that it was mainly an unsuccessful attempt to clarify his statements in Johannesburg, in which he referred to the Palestinian struggle for East Jerusalem as a jihad (holy war) to assuage wide Palestinian opposition for the limited autonomy agreement in Gaza and Jericho.
Arafat explains himself
The chairman explained that it was the Quraysh who breached the pact with the prophet. He seemed to be drawing parallels between himself and the Prophet Muhammed - rather than the two agreements, which he obviously believes were unfair and imposed by the power of the other side.
In the Hudaybiyyah pact, the Quraysh clan refused to recognize Muhammed as the messenger of God. In a similar way, at least according to Arafat, Israel is refusing to deal with him as president of Palestine. The insinuation to his audience was clear, that by sacrificing the title he has not jeopardized the goal of the establishment of a Palestinian state.
According to the agreements signed with Israel, Palestinian autonomy is an interim arrangement that should not jeopardize the final status of the Israeli-occupied territories, which will be discussed at a later stage.
Arafat's statements reflect the gap between the Israeli view that the final status remains open, while the PLO has repeatedly and publicly declared that it is seeking an independent Palestinian state.
``We are witnessing the birth of the Palestinian state,'' Arafat told supporters, explaining that the implementation of the agreement, regardless of how flawed Palestinians see it, will eventually lead to the attainment of their goal.
``It [the emerging Palestinian autonomy] is our baby, maybe some see it as frail, some may see it as too tiny ... it is our baby nevertheless, and it will need all the care we can give it,'' Arafat said, showing his irritation with the growing criticism.
Arafat's apparently contradictory statements are indicative of the uncertainty felt by the PLO leadership in Tunis, as it prepares itself to move to the autonomous zones and come to terms with the agreement it has bound itself to.
Most PLO officials and rank-and-file members here share Ara-fat's concerns over the erosion of the Palestinian constituency.
But his critics, including the two Palestinian architects of the Palestinian autonomy deal, Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammed Kouriah, say Arafat is simply blaming the Palestinians for impeding the process. Differences between Arafat and the two leading architects of the agreement vibrate in the PLO offices, where many have taken sides in favor of one camp or another.
``Arafat insists on his own interpretation of the agreement instead of adhering to the terms of the interim arrangements,'' says a PLO official close to Mr. Abbas. ``He will spoil everything.''
None of Arafat's critics, however, takes seriously or literally his controversial call for a jihad to liberate Jerusalem. Jihad, broadly defined in Arabic, means both struggle and holy war - or struggle for the sake of God.
Status of East Jerusalem
Arafat is eager to prove to Muslims that the PLO has not given up East Jerusalem. Although Israel and the PLO have agreed to defer negotiations over the future of the holy city to the final stage of the autonomy agreement, the two already have made up their minds about its future.
Israel considers the two sides of the city the unified eternal capital of Israel, while the PLO has never given up its goal of making the dominantly Arab East Jerusalem the capital of its future Palestinian state.
Arafat's use of the word jihad triggered strong Israeli reactions. ``In Arabic, jihad is mainly struggle through different forms, but in Israel and most of the West, jihad is connoted with violent struggle,'' explains Walid Sadiq, the Arab deputy minister of agriculture in the Israeli government.
``Arafat should know better. He is a politician, and he is responsible for the choice of his words,'' says Mr. Sadiq, who belongs to the leftist Meretz coalition that publicly calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
For Sadiq and other Israeli leftists, Arabs and Jews, statements like these strengthen the right-wing Likud party, which has pledged to annul the agreement if it regains power.