Arafat in driver seat; Palestinians stalled

The 17th session of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile is almost over, and it seems clear that it will offer no new initiatives that might restart the Mideast peace process.

A call by Jordan's King Hussein for the Palestine Liberation Organization to join him in formulating a joint negotiating stance got only a lukewarm reception here from Palestine National Council (PNC) delegates.

For some Palestinians, the proceedings of the PLO's highest governing body have been frustrating. They fault the PLO for being too concerned with its internal difficulties to address the larger problems of the Palestinians.

''They should come to the camp and see how their people are living, how miserable they are,'' says a Palestinian who works in the Baqaa refugee camp. ''Then they would hurry, hurry to find a solution.''

For many of Baqaa's more than 62,000 refugees, the PNC seems a world away, though it is being held only 15 miles to the east in the Amman Sporting Center. Representatives from Baqaa are attending the PNC and much of the camp's population is following the sessions on television or radio. But several residents said in interviews that they expected the convening of the council would have little immediate impact on their lives.

The conference has been primarily devoted to reestablishing the authority of chairman Yasser Arafat and his Al-Fatah guerrilla organization, the largest member group of the PLO.

Some PLO members argue that the time is not right for a dramatic move toward negotiating with Israel. No new plan can be considered, the argument goes, because the Arab world is fragmented, the PLO is weak and splintered, the Israeli government is divided and concerned with solving its economic problems, and the United States is preoccupied with its policies toward the Soviet Union and Latin America.

Many Palestinians and observers agree that the greatest accomplishment to be expected here - the convening of the meeting - has already occurred. Objections from Syria and dissident Palestinians had delayed it for months.

''The important thing is that the PLO has surmounted this challenge,'' says Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian academic who is an observer at the PNC. ''This was the first time Syria was dealt a defeat since the June 1982 war (the Israeli invasion of Lebanon).''

Syrian President Hafez Assad had insisted that the PNC not be held until Arafat, whom Assad has accused of seeking a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, was removed as chairman. Dissident PLO members joined the call for Arafat's removal and boycotted the PNC.

Mr. Khalidi, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for International Relations in Washington, says the PLO was forced to devote this PNC to dealing with the threats from Syria and PLO rebels.

''The PLO is not going to get the peace process going,'' he says. ''Not many Palestinians are willing to make yet another concession. It would be stupid in a situation where the PLO is fighting for its life against another Arab state. Any PLO concessions, especially a concession thrown into a void, would get us into a lot of trouble with the Syrians.''

Hussein seemed to be asking the Palestinians for just such a concession when he delivered the opening speech Thursday night. Saying that the outlook for peace in the region ''is bleak,'' the King said ''from time to time positions need to be reviewed and a new outlook formulated in the light of changing realities.''

The King invited the PLO to join him in formulating ''a joint initiative for which we will marshall support.'' He repeated his call for a United Nations-sponsored international peace conference that would include the Soviet Union, the US, Israel, the PLO, and Jordan. Israel and the US have rejected the notion of such a conference. The King also said that the Palestinians should accept UN Security Council Resolution 242 ''as a basis for a just, peaceful settlement.''

But the next day a Palestinian official said that the PLO still rejects Resolution 242. The resolution was adopted after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It called for Israel to withdraw from all the captured territories, and recognized the ''sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area'' in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel.

An editorial Sunday in the English-language Jordan Times chastised the PLO for hesitating in accepting the King's call:

''The King did not ask the PLO to merely accept 242 and go home. He told them 242 plus the PLO would make the difference. . . . Why not try this approach, then, if the alternative is much more instability, bloodshed, and suffering?''

The PLO has refused to accept 242 because it refers to the Palestinians only as refugees and does not mention the need to establish a Palestinian homeland. The PLO's position has been that the minimum basis for a settlement must be the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

The King's emphasis on 242 worried some Palestinians. ''When you are in Tunis and the King says that sort of thing, you can ignore him,'' one delegate said. ''But you can't ignore him when he's addressing the PNC in Amman.''

The discomfort felt by many Palestinians in holding the PNC here has been evident. Hussein expelled PLO guerrillas from Jordan in September 1970. Some PLO members still fear that the King's idea of trading land for peace with Israel would mean that the West Bank would be incorporated into Jordan instead of an independent Palestinian state.

Though Arafat and Hussein embraced at the end of Arafat's speech, the PLO leader has given the King litle hope of being able to join in any negotiating process.

Arafat, mindful of the Syrian criticism of his moderate leanings, called for a renewal of the military struggle against Israel. He left the door wide open to the PLO's leftist organizations, the Democratic Front and the Popular Front. Both organizations are based in Syria and did not attend the PNC, but seats will be left open for them on the executive committee.

''This meeting has me totally disoriented,'' says one Western diplomat. ''I expected an outcome, and there is no outcome. Arafat has bought himself some time. But if he doesn't come up with some sort of policy after the PNC, in a few months he'll find himself in the same position.''

For the refugees living at Baqaa, the hope that they might one day return to some part of Palestine from their cinderblock shelters remains faint.

''The young people of our camp, they are the ones who are bleeding for the impractical attitudes of the PLO,'' says a doctor at the camp. But the doctor says he understands the dilemma of Fatah.

''How can I go into negotiations without knowing what is at the end of the tunnel?'' he asks rhetorically.

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