In his effort to forge unity among disparate Palestinian factions, Yasser Arafat is getting support from none other than his erstwhile critic - Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. In an interview at his headquarters on the outskirts of Tunis, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman said that Colonel Qaddafi was trying to persuade Syrian-based Palestinian splinter groups to reunite with the PLO. He also painted a grim picture of the situation facing Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps: It's getting worse, he said.
Speaking on Qaddafi, Mr. Arafat said: ``There is an attempt from the Libyan leadership now to push them to join us. Qaddafi is trying his best to help the Palestinians strengthen our unity.''
Arafat, who heads the largest faction of the mainstream PLO, is pursuing this goal in anticipation of the April 20 meeting in Algiers of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament in exile). His unity efforts are seen as part of a larger effort to restore PLO authority over the Palestinian movement as a whole and to get the widest possible Palestinian support for an international conference on Mideast peace.
Libya has given no official explanation for its newly conciliatory attitude. Qaddafi has long been a vocal critic of Arafat. When asked if there had been a reconciliation between him and Qaddafi, Arafat said, ``You can say that it is more than a reconciliation. It is warm relations.''
Libya's shift, analysts here say, is prompted by a desire to break out of its growing international isolation. Qaddafi, whose only Arab ally is Syria, is keen to improve his relations with other Arab countries, and reconciling with the main Palestinian movement is part of this effort.
Despite his ties to Syria's President Hafez Assad, Qaddafi has come out in support of Palestinian refugees whose camps in Beirut have been beseiged by a Syrian-backed militia for nearly six months. Mr. Assad is determined to stamp out any attempt at an armed PLO resurgence in Lebanon. Hence he has supported the Shiite Muslim Amal militia's bid to prevent a Palestinian resurgence there.
The situation in the Palestinian camps of Borj el Barajneh and Shatila, Arafat says, is deteriorating. Since last October, he says 4,900 people have died from starvation or from the fighting. ``President Assad declared some days ago that he controlled completely all the security measures in west Beirut. Why is there no security for the Palestinians in the refugee camps?'' Arafat asked. Amal's siege of the camps has made the situation of Syrian-based Palestinian organizations more awkward. Three leaders of Damascus-based Palestinian factions - George Habash, Ahmed Jabril, and Nayef Hawatmeh - are reportedly meeting in Tripoli to discuss a PLO position paper on Palestinian unity. PLO officials hope the groundwork will be laid for a declaration of unity at next month's Algiers meeting.
Arafat also said he hoped the Algiers meeting would support PLO participation in an international Mideast peace conference. He expressed hope that the conference would take place by the end of this year, because the ``US administration has begun to talk about it and, for the first time, one side of the Israeli Cabinet has begun to speak about it from their point of view.''
An international conference, Arafat said, should include ``the five permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, and all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict, including the PLO.'' He denied recent reports that he had agreed to designate non-PLO Palestinian personalities to represent the PLO. Since Arafat retreated to Tunis from Beirut, after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the PLO has struggled to regain control over a Palestinian movement riven by dissent and weakened by the scattering of Palestinian fighters evacuated from Lebanon to locations throughout the Middle East.
Relations between the PLO and Tunisian government have been cool. Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba allowed the PLO to move to Tunis in 1982 with the understanding that no terrorist or military actions would originate from there. Palestinian fighters surrendered their arms on arrival, and were taken to a camp several hundred kilometers north of Tunis. Almost immediately a group split off and headed for Algeria to continue the armed struggle.
Israel's October 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in strained relations between Tunis and the Palestinians. Many Tunisians, unhappy with the government's low-key response, took to the streets in protest. The government saw the PLO as a pole of tension.
Relations worsened after it was learned that the November 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro was orchestrated by Abu Abbas, a member of the Palestinian executive committee based in Tunis. The Tunisians then reportedly asked the PLO to reduce its personnel in Tunis. The PLO's military arm is now located in Baghdad, Iraq, with other fighters based in North and South Yemen, Sudan, and Lebanon. Some 200 Palestinians and their families remain in Tunis.
Last month, Arafat returned to Tunisia for the first time in over five months and met with President Bourguiba. Palestinians, however, continue to be searched at the airport, and are sometimes refused entry.
Despite these inconveniences, Tunisia remains the only suitable Arab capital for the PLO at the moment, analysts agree. Though Egypt's ties with the PLO have improved, Cairo is still compromised in Palestinian eyes because of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Baghdad is too controversial because of the war with Iran. The PLO is on bad terms with Syria and Jordan, and under attack in Lebanon.