Arafat treads tightrope as PLO factions differ

The toughest Palestinian statement since 1974 seems to have obscured signs of PLO chief Yasser Arafat's customary determination to keep doors open for a negotiated peace.

A clearer indication of which trend is winning out is expected when the Palestine National Council (PNC), a "parliament-in-exile" serving as the Palestine Liberation Organization's ultimate policy body, meets in early July.

Mr. Arafat may well have boxed himself into a corner, since it would appear difficult for him to have the PNC stop short of the hard-line position taken recently by his own, dominant guerrilla faction, Al-Fatah.

The June 1 vow by Al-Fatah to destroy Israel and "liberate" all of historic Palestine is seen by some as a reflection of a further PLO constant -- a bad sense of timing.

That Fatah statement came as West European states were consulting on a possible break with US Middle East policy through a public show of support for a PLO negotiating role and for Palestinian "self-determination." Arab analysts suspect, after this Al-Fatah blast, any European declaration might be more equivocal than earlier anticipated.

Meanwhile, despite a slew of hard-line statements, the 11-day Fatah congress in Damascus produced at least two important signs of openness to a more moderate strategy:

* The congress agreed, in a final declaration, on an "intensification of political action" in Western Europe in search of gains on the diplomatic front.

* The congress also reaffirmed, according to PLO officials, its support for past decisions of the Palestine National Council. It was the PNC that, in 1974, stated for the first time the PLO's willingness to accept a Palestinian state in "any" territory wrested from Israel -- a position that gradually crystalized into a bid for a state in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip.

In the accepted view that a genius is one who can hold diametrically opposed views at the same time, the collective Al-Fatah IQ would seem sky high.

So what then do Mr. Arafat and his fighters want? A West Bank and Gaza state or, as stated in the Fatah communique, "liquidation of the Zionist entity [ meaning Israel] politically, economically, militarily, culturally, and ideologically"?

Veteran Arab political anylysts are convinced that Mr. Arafat, at least, is willing to settle for the first -- and is ready to deliver the recognition of Israel's existence it would surely entail -- but is not about to say so until the prize is visibly within reach.

Thus, Mr. Arafat in the past has tiptoed to the brink of accepting United Nations Resolution 242, tacitly recognizing Israel's right to exist, and has then drawn back. And while playing a key role in the 1974 National Council decisions, Mr. Arafat has consistently avoided a formal renunciation of earlier vows to "liberate all of Palestine."

Arab analysts point to a number of catalysts for Al- Fatah's most explicit restatement of the "total liberation" policy since 1976.

Among the major reasons mentioned are Israel's clear rejection of even a Palestinian mini-state, the failure of Western Europe to win even acquiescence by Washington to its planned Middle East initiative, and hard-line Palestinian pressure on Mr. Arafat over both these points.

At the sometimes stormy Fatah congress, Mr. Arafat was also said to have been squeezed by growing Palestinian suspicion of an erosion of Jordanian King Hussein's opposition to US peace moves.

Finally, amid growing militancy among local West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, a publicly "moderate" tack by Mr. Arafat could have proved embarrassing within the Arab world.

"There would seem little point in Mr. Arafat's risking the ire of more hard-line Palestinian both within and outside Fatah at a time when the prospects of fruitful moderation looked so bleak," commented a respected Arab analyst in Beirut.

Moreover, in the words of the Beirut magazine, An- Nahar, Mr. Arafaths support of the hard-line Fatah statement left him internally "stronger than ever" for an eventual moderation move.

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