Will Palestinian hard-liners and their Arab supporters try to demolish the new US-PLO dialogue? United States, European, and Middle Eastern specialists say they expect there will be trouble from that corner. They are watching closely to see how such states as Syria and Libya, which bankroll the radicals, react to the talks as a sign of what might come.
Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, pledged this weekend to do his ``best'' to stop Palestinian terrorism. He, like many American specialists, was apparently distinguishing ``terrorism'' from the often-violent civil disobedience in the occupied territories and from attacks on military targets.
But specialists say even an all-out effort by Mr. Arafat and his Arab allies may not be able to stop Palestinian splinter groups or even dissidents within the PLO from attempting terrorist operations.
``Every time the Palestinian moderates have tried to strike out for dialogue,'' says a very well-placed European specialist on terrorism, ``the rejectionists have tried to block it with assassinations and terrorist attacks.''
``As the PLO has moderated its stance recently,'' he says, ``we have received reports that several dissident groups are coming together with Syrian encouragement. This could well spell trouble for Arafat and us all.''
This specialist says the notorious Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) are among those that are moving closer of late. US sources confirm reports of increasing contacts between these groups. Both organizations have terrorist training bases in Lebanon, have attempted terrorist attacks this year, and receive support from either Syria or Libya.
Washington is keeping a close eye on Syria and Libya. Both have opposed any hints of concessions to Israel and fund a range of hard-line Palestinian groups. So far, however, each has maintained a fairly low public profile on the beginning of US-PLO talks and Arafat's Geneva remarks that made them possible.
Syrian-PLO relations are particularly poor. Syrian-supported Palestinian groups continue to battle forces loyal to Arafat in Lebanon. These Palestinian radicals have denounced Arafat's recent moves as ``treacherous'' and called for dealing with him as an ``enemy'' of the ``revolution.''
In Libya, Tripoli radio reported that students in several Libyan towns were protesting against ``defeatist and capitulatory deeds'' leading to the recognition of the ``Zionist enemy.''
Western specialists and Arab moderates are also watching the reaction of left-wing groups within the PLO. So far the main groups - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) - appear to be playing the role of a loyal opposition, US officials say. ``They aren't pleased but they are going along,'' says one.
The main reason for this, experts say, is the strong pressure on the PLO from Palestinians inside the occupied territories to relieve the burden they are assuming with the Palestinian uprising, now one year old.
While admitting dissidents can be a ``nuisance,'' a senior Arab diplomat who helped bring about the US-PLO dialogue argues that the Arab and Palestinian hard-liners are ``isolated.'' ``Yes, we have to watch, but this is a new wave of history. They can either catch that wave or be left out,'' he says.
``The hawks in Israel are more of a danger,'' he adds. Several Western and Arab specialists questioned mentioned the possibility of an Israeli-organized incident.
US terrorism specialists are still suspicious that the ANO, PFLP-GC, or others will try ``to play the spoilers,'' as one puts it.
The PFLP-GC is headquartered in Syria and receives large stipends from Libya, according to informed US and European specialists. In October, West German authorities arrested several PFLP-GC operatives. According to Western intelligence sources, they were apparently planning to blow up an Air Iberia flight from Madrid to Tel Aviv.
The PFLP-GC claimed credit for a daring hang-glider attack on an Israeli military outpost earlier this year. US officials do not classify such attacks as terrorism.
ANO is headquartered in Libya and is supported by that country. Syria closed down ANO offices in Damascus under pressure from the US and European countries to sever its ties with terrorism. While Western intelligence sources say this move soured ANO-Syrian relations, Syria maintains contact with ANO in Lebanon. It has not moved to close ANO bases there, despite the presence of about 40,000 Syrian troops in that country.
ANO is the most lethal Palestinian terrorist group by most accounts. It is linked to terrorist attacks or planned operations this year in India, Sudan, Cyprus, Jordan, Peru, and Greece. The July attack in Greece killed nine and wounded 90. Fear of a repetition reportedly led the Greek government to release two weeks ago an ANO operative sought by Italy for a hand-grenade attack on a synagogue. The released individual was flown to Libya. At least three trails of evidence from the July attack in Greece led to Libyan support for ANO, informed US specialists say.