Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), finds himself increasingly isolated from American diplomatic maneuvers in the Middle East -- and consequently is determined to hold tight to his recently forged political links with his former archenemy, King Hussein of Jordan.
The extent of this determination has been displayed at the meeting of the Palestine National Council, the PLO-dominated Palestinian parliament-in-exile. There PLO foreign minister Farouk Kaddoumi called for stronger PLO relations with Jordan, despite the fact that the meeting is being held in Damascus, capital of Syria, a bitter critic of Jordan.
The PLO's links with Jordan were reestablished in late 1978 after seven years of estrangement following Jordan's expulsion of thousands of armed Palestinian commandos in 1970-71. Today, the links operate at two levels. Leading PLO officials, including Mr. Arafat and his military deputy, Abu Jihad, make occasional visits to Amman to confer with King Hussein or Jordanian officials.
On a more regular basis, a joint Palestinian-Jordanian committee meets periodically in Amman to parcel out millions of Arab dollars to residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is to maintain the "steadfastness" of morale and institutions, as mandated by the 1978 Arab summit conference in Baghdad, Iraq.
Within the PLO, it is Al-Fatah, the mainstream military organization headed by Mr. Arafat, that has pushed to establish and continue the "Jordanian connection." One illustration of the importance attached by Mr. Arafat to this link is the expected appointment of Al-Fatah leader Hani al-Hassan to head the PLO's Amman office, which at present is run by a non-Fatah Palestinian.
Mr. Hassan, a key aide and trusted friend of Mr. Arafat, was previously the PLO's representative in Iran and has attended the last two sessions of the joint committee.
The reasons for clinging to the Jordanian connection are twofold:
1. The PLO is feeling increasingly isolated and squeezed in the Arab world. Its chief protector, Syria, has become estranged from Arab moderates, whose backing the PLO needs; the Iran-Iraq war has distracted Arab attention from the Palestinian issue; Israeli attacks on the PLO in south Lebanon have weakened its base, which is threatened further by a possible renewal of full-scale civil war in Lebanon; and American strategic interests are now focused on the Gulf and Jordan, rather than on Israel and the PLO.
Although Jordan's King Hussein insists he will not act as a substitute spokesman for the PLO, Fatah leaders believe they may well need him as a partner or conduit to any future negotiating role.
2. The joint committee provides the PLO with a vital financial umbilical cord through which it can reach and influence Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where any Palestinian entity would be established.
The money, aimed at encouraging Palestinian residents not to emigrate, goes to West Bank and Gaza municipalities, village councils, universities, and charitable institutions. There are increasing allotments for agricultural projects -- to encourage farmers to stay on the land in the face of rising costs and expanding Israeli settlements -- as well as plans to encourage local industry.
Israeli military government officials complain that the money goes to encourage infrastructure for a Palestinian state, but they let most of it in after investigating all local project proposals. Jordanian sources say $140 million has been appropriated so far. They say that money for projects turned down by the Israelis is often funneled into the West Bank by individual Arabs.
Radical PLO splinter groups -- and some West Bankers -- complain that Jordan directs "steadfastness" money to bolster its own influence in the West Bank. These radicals, along with Syria, have attacked the PLO's Jordanian connection because they fear King Hussein will use it to enhance his international standing at the PLO's ex pense.