Lack of options pushes Arafat closer to talks with Israel. But do his moves denote change in PLO goals or are they buying time?

Yasser Arafat, grizzled leader of an aging and battered guerrilla organization, is closer than he ever has been to negotiating a peaceful settlement for the Palestinians with Israel. But the man edging toward negotiations and dragging a reluctant and suspicious leadership along behind him is regarded by most analysts as more of a survivor than a decisive leader.

The question being asked by the Americans, Israelis, and some Palestinians is: Are Arafat's latest diplomatic moves evidence of a fundamental shift in the Palestine Liberation Organization's goals or are they a delaying tactic to buy time, while he rebuilds his organization and consolidates power?

``He's decided on this course because it is in the interest of himself and his faction in the PLO,'' says a veteran Western diplomat here. ``I don't think it's done through any sort of humanitarian motives. He may still pull out at the last moment. He's done it once, and he could do it again.''

But in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, two prominent West Bank Palestinians last week said they believed the PLO and Arafat personally were committed to achieving a peaceful settlement to a conflict that has lasted more than 35 years.

Observers who say Arafat wants a negotiated settlement point to the chairman's lack of options as the strongest force compelling him forward.

Founder of the PLO's central Al-Fatah faction, Arafat has spent two decades waging an unsuccessful guerrilla war against Israel. He has failed to deliver on his promise to the Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948 and 1967 that they could return. His military organization was shattered by Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, battered by the Syrians in 1983, and again earlier this year in Beirut's refugee camps. His fighters are scattered and demoralized.

Arafat and his close aides insist that he now is determined to seek a negotiated settlement with Israel. In his latest diplomatic move, Arafat delivered a list of potential Palestinian members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian peace team to the Jordanians, who in turn presented the list to the US and are awaiting word that State Department envoy Richard Murphy will visit the region.

The list, according to diplomatic sources in Amman, represents both Arafat's desire to talk to the Americans and his determination to have them recognize the PLO as the only potential negotiators for the Palestinians.

``It is up to the United States to decide from the point that they know that what Jordan and the PLO have achieved very recently is an achievement that should not be missed and should not be made to fail,'' says PLO executive committee member Mohammed Milhem.

The framework Arafat is working in is the Feb. 11 agreement he signed with Jordan's King Hussein in which he made two concessions: By agreeing to a confederation with Jordan, the PLO relinquished the notion of an independent Palestinian state, and by agreeing to jointly negotiate a settlement with Jordan, Arafat limited his hard-earned role as the ``sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.''

If his gamble pays off, by the end of the year he may achieve US recognition of the PLO and may even be involved in negotiations with Israel over the fate of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. If he has miscalculated, the joint peace initiative will collapse and his decision to seek a negotiated settlement will be discredited. He will be left weak and exposed to his enemies -- the Syrians and dissident Palestinians who reject talks.

Arafat walks a fine line between being flexible enough to keep Jordan and the US interested in dealing with him and firm enough to retain his support in the PLO.

``Arafat has no military option left,'' says one diplomat. ``What he has is legitimacy and money. He has to deal very carefully with this legitimacy as the representative of the Palestinians. If he [appoints] people who are not the PLO, people will have very good reasons to attack him on the very delicate problem of legitimacy.''

Some Palestinians close to the PLO here say that Arafat insists any delegates the Americans agree to meet will clearly be identified as having been chosen by the PLO. Should the US agree to that demand, it will undoubtedly face strong protest from Israelis.

The US has said it will deal with the PLO only if it acknowledges Israel's right to exist and accepts United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for trading land for peace and negotiating a settlement.

Israel has hoped to limit any negotiations on the fate of the West Bank and Gaza to discussions with the Jordanians and Palestinians in the occupied territories who are not aligned with the PLO. The PLO, Israeli analyst Meron Benvenisti said recently, threatens Israel not only as a guerrilla organization, but also as a group that represents the estimated two-thirds of the Palestinians who live outside the occupied territories. The PLO wants any settlement to include those Palestinians. Israel, Mr. Benev enisti said, would rather limit a settlement to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Of the seven names reportedly forwarded to the Americans by the Jordanians, all were either closely identified with, or were actual members of, Al-Fatah. Only two were from the occupied territories, and neither of them was a prominent leader.

``We could not allow prominent West Bank or Gaza Strip delegates on the list, because they would have bases outside of the PLO and might at some point become non-PLO representatives,'' one Palestinian journalist in Amman explained.

American diplomats have said privately that the peace process could progress only if the PLO steps aside, at least initially, to let designated representatives deal for it. Arafat's list demonstrates, observers in Amman say, that the PLO is unwilling or unable to do that.

``The ball is in the American court now,'' says a senior Jordanian official. ``I, as a Jordanian, cannot replace the PLO. To replace the PLO is not an asset, it is a liability. The PLO must be there [in negotiations] to give away a piece of Palestine if they want to. I cannot do it, and we [the Jordanians] will not go alone.''

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