Gulf Crisis Revives Palestinian Hopes

PLO looks to Baker-Saddam talks to keep Arab-Israeli conflict on world agenda

AS the uprising completes its third year, the Palestine Liberation Organization is struggling to ensure that a settlement of the Gulf crisis does not leave Palestinians out in the cold. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat is in Baghdad keeping the Palestinians' plight high in Iraq's priorities when United States Secretary of State James Baker III meets President Saddam Hussein later this month.

President Bush's offer last week to open talks with Baghdad has strengthened the PLO's conviction that by challenging Western interests in the region Saddam may finally force Washington to address Palestinian national and legal rights.

``[The move] could become a historical turning point for the whole region,'' says PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabo.

Demanding a solution to the Palestinian problem in return for a settlement of the Gulf crisis, Palestinians say, will step up international pressure for addressing the long unresolved conflict.

Saddam is aware that a settlement of the Gulf crisis will entail Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, some PLO officials say. Consequently, securing tangible progress toward solving the Palestinian problem will provide a face-saving formula for Baghdad.

At the same time, these officials argue that even if the US were to prevail over Iraq - either through war or negotiations - Washington could not secure its interests in the region and the security of its Arab allies without working to settle the Palestinian problem.

``Extremism is on the rise in the region and the US allies might be in jeopardy,'' says Qaes Samerai, better known as Abu Laila, a key member of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Most PLO officials have no illusions about the US recognizing linkage between the Gulf crisis and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But they argue that practical linkage has already been established as more countries press for solving the Palestinian problem.

``If anything, pressures are building up on the international level and in the region on the US and the major powers to deal with the Israeli occupation in the same manner that the world community has dealt with the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait,'' Abu Laila say.

The US, PLO officials say, has already started to respond to these pressures by not vetoing two recent United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli violence.

PLO officials have been considering several proposals for getting the Palestinian issue on the agenda. The first, but most difficult to achieve, is the French proposal to convene an international peace conference to discuss all of the problems in the region.

Another is to secure guarantees from the UN Security Council to hold an international peace conference or to get a declaration of intent from the five permanent members of the Council to address the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A PLO priority, which Saddam is expected to push in his talks with the US, is to secure international protection for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

The PLO, like many Palestinians inside the territories, realizes that the uprising alone, without international support, cannot attain Palestinian goals. But Palestinian officials argue that regardless of the results of the Gulf crisis, it is unlikely the intifadah will stop.

``On the contrary, the intifadah is escalating and will continue to play a relevant and instrumental factor in pressuring the Arab states, especially the US allies, and the international community,'' Abu Laila says.

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