How Arafat miscalculated and lost his hold on the PLO

This story is based on reporting on the Palestinians in the past year in Beirut, Amman, Damascus, Algiers, and Jerusalem.m In one of the most stunning scenes of the Palestine National Council held last February in Algiers, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat embraced pro-Syrian faction leader Ahmed Jabril, who had just finished denouncing the PLO leader.

Standing on the speaker's platform, Mr. Arafat planted far more than the Mideast's obligatory two kisses on Mr. Jabril's cheeks, in a dramatic effort to emphasize the need for unity in the PLO.

But Arafat's gesture was challenged by Shafik al-Hout, a large, haggard man, whose grim features reflected his Beirut experiences under Israeli siege. ''What is this unity?'' he thundered sarcastically, in the most forthright speech of the entire session. ''It is only a unity of kisses. I pray you reach a unity not of kisses and hugs, but a clear political platform in which we defend ourselves and not hit at each other with knives.''

Mr. al-Hout's pleas were ignored over this past year and his worst premonitions came true. PLO rebels (including Mr. Jabril's group) who opposed Arafat's style and his relative moderation have been besieging the PLO leader's followers in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley with crucial Syrian military help.

And Syria humiliated the PLO leader by expelling him from Damascus. PLO and Arab mediators meeting in Damascus appear to have produced a reconciliation formula by which Arafat will agree to a broad committee of rebels and loyalists which will prepare for a congress of the entire Fatah movement.

Even if he survives heavy criticism at the session - he remains a symbol of the cause - his powers will be clipped and the PLO will come under tighter control of the Syrians.

By focusing all his efforts on maintaining a fictitious unity in an organization already fractured beyond repair, Arafat may have lost the option to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian problem - the strategy on which he built his international reputation.

Where did the PLO leader go wrong? How did he miscalculate his ability to control the organization?

In a sense, the PLO's current crisis is a delayed reaction to the basic dilemma faced by Yasser Arafat after Israel expelled the PLO from Beirut. Even while in Beirut, the PLO chief faced opposition to his diplomatic tack, including critics within his dominant Fatah organization.

But as the acknowledged leader of a virtual state within a state, which was absorbed in building up institutions and a regular army with Arab oil funds, he was able to push through approval for his political strategy.

With the demolition of the PLO's bureaucracy in Beirut, Arafat's solid foundation of support began to crumble. But for several months this was obscured by a flurry of Arab and Arafat interest in the Reagan Mideast peace initiative. The Reagan plan provided no role for the PLO. It called for Jordan and non-PLO Palestinians to negotiate with Israel over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But PLO moderates held out the slight hope the United States, under prodding by moderate Arab states, might concede them some role. And while scattered PLO fighters adjusted to their new bases around the Arab world, criticism of Arafat was held in check.

Rumblings of discontent with Arafat's leadership were already in evidence by the time the Palestine National Council (PNC) met in Algiers. A fierce argument broke out on the plenary floor over the choice of 23 new members of the council: most controversial was Haj Ismail, the Fatah officer accused of deserting his post in south Lebanon during the Israeli assault. His appointment by Arafat as a commander in the Bekaa would later help spark the Fatah rebellion.

One close Fatah associate of Arafat complained to a visitor that the PLO chief was taking decisions without consulting his colleagues, such as meeting with three Israeli doves in Tunis. This intimate said Arafat's freewheeling tendencies were being exacerbated by the post-Beirut difficulties of communication between scattered PLO leaders.

Fighters exiled to Algiers complained that if they weren't sent soon to fight in the Bekaa they would desert. Other fighters said bitterly not enough was being done to help their relatives left behind in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Perhaps most ominous, fissures were now appearing in the ranks of Arafat's Fatah organization. In January he had demoted Fatah leftist Nimr Salih (Abu Salih), a longtime opponent of Arafat's diplomatic strategy (who today is a key leader of the Fatah rebels).

Some PLO moderates, in Fatah and independents, as well as some moderate West Bankers and Gazans, urged Arafat at this time to recognize the irreconcilable fissures in the organization. They called on him to take a bold and clear diplomatic initiative, even if it meant splitting the organization.

''We told him he had three choices,'' said one West Bank moderate who secretly sent the PNC an urgent message which was signed by other West Bankers and Gazans. ''We said he could become a Jordanian card by going with King Hussein, or he could become a Syrian card by sitting in the Bekaa Valley, or he could recognize Israel, thus meeting the US criterion for them to talk with the PLO, which would have made the PLO an independent actor and forced the Israeli hand. We recommended the third option.''

Such a choice, which had only minority support even on the West Bank, was discussed at Algiers, but never seriously.

Nor did it have many supporters. ''People talked in the hallways,'' a senior Fatah military officer told a journalist. ''I said 'Let's face facts, if we are going to have a West Bank-Gaza state we must recognize and meet Israelis, and if we want all Palestine we should decide to focus only on military struggle.'

But no one had the courage to say things openly.''

In the end, distrustful of US policy and aware of Israeli determination to keep the territories, Arafat opted for a paper unity in order to preserve the symbol of Palestinian identity. Mr. al-Hout bitterly labeled this choice the ''unity of paralysis.''

Facing opposition both from PLO radicals and his own Fatah organization, he backed off in early April from endorsing further Jordanian-Palestinian movement toward the Reagan plan. This caused Jordan's King Hussein to break off his dialogue with Arafat.

After the break with King Hussein, future PLO dependence on Syria seemed foreordained. But as late as early May senior PLO leaders still seemed to believe intervention by Saudi Arabia and Morocco might convince the US to make concessions to the PLO.

''We aren't in a corner, Reagan is in a corner,'' Fatah military commander Abu Jihad (Kalil Wazir) said in early May in Damascus, just before revolt among Fatah officers broke out in the Bekaa Valley. ''He wants a victory in the Mideast for his election campaign and he is in a hurry. But the Palestinians can't sell our cause because Reagan is in a hurry.''

But by opting to wait for an Israeli or US move, Arafat lost the initiative and left even his followers frustrated. ''Any policy - left or right - would have been better than no clear policy at all,'' complained one Arafat supporter in the Gaza Strip.

The failure by Fatah leaders to foresee the Syrian and Fatah rebel moves may have been in part due to misplaced expectations about future military developments in the Bekaa.

In the days just preceding the Fatah revolt, Arafat supporters were lulled by euphoria at their rare success in scoring Israeli military casualties by guerrilla strikes against Israeli troops in Lebanon.

The Fatah leadership appeared convinced that Israel would soon be forced by intolerable casualties to launch a new war against Syria which would in turn precipitate a new and more favorable diplomatic situation for the PLO.

Instead, the freezing of Arafat's Jordan option seems to have been the signal for unhappy Fatah fighters to vent their pent-up grievances - and for Syria to take advantage of this opportunity to make clear that it now controlled the PLO. Thwarted in his chosen arena, Arafat became vulnerable elsewhere.

Is the diplomatic option finished?

Arafat may yet survive - because even Syria and the rebels recognize his symbolic value - but only if he bows to a more radical PLO line. While the Syrians do not oppose the concept of negotiations, they favor a formula providing them, the PLO, and the Soviet Union with prominent roles.

Some Israeli analysts believe that Arafat may in desperation turn back to King Hussein and try to revive the Jordan option.

This scenario appears highly unlikely, however, since at this point Arafat could no longer bring with him the Fatah organization, even were he now willing to split the PLO.

Ironically, the more moderate West Bank and Gaza, where his support is overwhelming, are unable to offer him more than moral support since they are under Israeli control.

Some West Bank moderates are speculating that the splintering of Fatah and a leftward shift in the PLO might result in the de facto revocation of the mantle of legitimacy as sole Palestinian representative conferred on the PLO in 1974 by the Arab League.

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