Palestinian activists view the reunification of the Palestine Liberation Organization, expected to take place this week in Algiers, as the best news they've heard in years. ``Considering all the negative things around, it is not a bad thing,'' says Daoud Kuttab, editor of the English edition of east Jerusalem's pro-PLO Al-Fajr newspaper.
For Palestinian activists both here and in the Arab world, reunification means that the PLO is backing away from what many considered its dangerous drift toward political compromise.
What remains to be seen is whether it also means that the PLO will be left out of an international peace conference, should one be convened this year.
The formal reunification is expected to take place during the week-long 18th Palestine National Council meeting which is to begin today. The PNC serves as a de facto Palestinian parliament-in-exile, bringing together representatives of various guerrilla factions as well as prominent Palestinian intellectuals, businessmen, and others.
In return for reunification, hard-line factions are extracting a price from chairman Yasser Arafat: the formal abrogation of the Feb. 11, 1985 accord he signed with Jordan's King Hussein and the institution of collective leadership in the PLO. Mr. Arafat may also have to agree to halt contacts with Egypt, the only Arab state that has signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Undoubtedly, the PNC will resoundingly reaffirm the PLO's commitment to armed struggle against Israel and its rejection of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The two resolutions enshrine the concept of trading land for peace and are accepted by the United States, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt as the basis for holding an international peace conference. The PLO rejects the resolutions because they do not include acknowledgement of a Palestinian right to self-determination.
Arafat said last week that a priority item on the PNC's agenda will be formulating its stance on Palestinian participation in an international conference. Egyptian and Jordanian officials have worried out loud for weeks that if the PLO insists that only an independent PLO delegation can represent Palestinians at such a conference, it may kill the momentum toward convening a conference that has been building on the international scene for months.
Israel and the United States have refused to accept the PLO, labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, as a party to negotiations.
Arafat is ready to accept some, if not all, the demands of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian Communist Party because he has been severely weakened by a series of political missteps since Israel destroyed the PLO's military base in Lebanon five years ago, Palestinian analysts say.
Since being driven from Lebanon by Israel and then by Syria in 1982, Arafat has seen his influence wane in the Arab world and his image tarnish in the eyes of his own people.
Arafat's split with Syrian President Hafez Assad and his flirtation with the moderate Jordanian and Egyptian regimes earned him the enmity of the Syrians and Syrian-based PLO factions without winning for him any political breakthroughs. A breakthrough might have justified his maneuverings to the refugee camps that form the PLO's backbone of support, Palestinian analysts says.
``Arafat came to realize that either he accepted the unity of the PLO or he was finished, he didn't matter anymore,'' said a PNC member in Amman last month.
Mr. Kuttab said the US and Jordan pushed Arafat back into the arms of radical Palestinian factions.
``People have said that by unifying the PLO, Arafat would be reducing his maneuverability,'' Kuttab said. ``But even when Arafat had freestyle maneuverability, people did not see results. Without the Jordanians and the US coming through, the thinking is that maybe it is better to regroup.''
The path to reunification opened after King Hussein announced a year ago that he was ending cooperation with the PLO's leadership. The King blamed Arafat for failing to accept Resolutions 242 and 338 in return for an invitation to an international conference. He expelled most PLO officials from Jordan and launched a campaign to reassert his own authority on the West Bank.
Negotiations among the PLO factions began almost immediately, helped along by the Soviet Union, Libya, and Algeria, to the dismay of the Jordanians and Egyptians.
Both Jordanian and Egyptian officials had hoped that if pressure was kept up on Arafat, he might come around to accepting 242 and 338, leading to a change in American policy toward the PLO and, ultimately, to the presentation of a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation at an international conference.
The negotiations among the PLO factions received a boost from the recent prolonged siege of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, a siege that resulted in the various Palestinian factions uniting under Fatah's leadership to fight the Syrian-backed Amal militia.
The factions' talks were also helped, Palestinians said, by Hussein's cooperation with Israel in cracking down on pro-PLO activists on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians were reminded again of the unhappy relationship they had with Amman between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan ruled the West Bank.