Palestinians Try to Explain Reaction

AS Palestinians both inside and outside the occupied territories initially welcomed the apparent ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, political leaders in the West Bank are hastening to dispel the sour taste that reaction has left around the world.With memories of the Palestinians' ill-fated support for Saddam Hussein still fresh in their minds, spokesmen are at pains to explain the popular cheers at word of Mr. Gorbachev's fall. The general satisfaction at events in Moscow stems, they say, from a widespread feeling that in drawing closer to the United States, Gorbachev betrayed the Palestinians. "It doesn't mean the Palestinians are saying we want a return to the cold war, or we want Stalinism," stresses Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian team that has been discussing the peace process with United States Secretary of State James Baker III. "Those who are happy, if you will, I think they are frustrated over how Gorbachev handled the Palestinian problem, that is all," adds Radwan Abu Ayyash, former president of the Palestinian Journalists' Association. "At a gut level ... people are so desperate and frustrated that any change that holds out hope of even a one percent improvement in their situation is seen as positive," explains Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and film maker. "But the leaders, the intellectuals and the politicians have not been so quick to make judgements," he points out. Nonetheless the wave of support for the Soviet hard-liners that swept the West Bank and Gaza Strip has astonished outside observers. "There has been an instinctive reaction that this will help them without any thinking through of the implications of their public posture," says one Western diplomat. "Last August they were at least relating to an Arab brother [Saddam Hussein], but which star are they hitching their wagon to this time?" he wonders. Gorbachev's general unpopularity among Palestinians dates from the moment it became clear that his rapprochement with the United States was going to involve distancing himself from traditional Soviet prots in the Arab world, especially the Palestine Liberation Organization. The East Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds ran two stories on its front page on Tuesday, one proclaiming, "Gorbachev Ousted," the other headlined, "Palestinians in Territories Hope for Soviet Return to Supporting Arab Cause." Moscow took no very strong line against continued Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, points out Abu Ayyash, and also allowed hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel without doing anything to work for the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. On the broader political front, as Washington pursued its vision of a Middle East peace conference, Moscow did little but tag along, Palestinians complain. "What [Palestinians] have seen has been a very demeaning sort of reversal of Soviet policies to the point where they have had no independent will or political voice whatsoever," says Ms. Ashrawi. The result has been that the Soviets "have not been able to influence the peace process in any way other than being a very feeble echo or shadow of the American policy," she laments. "Palestinians here feel that maybe now there's a chance to redress that situation, and to come up with a factor that would play in favor of the Palestinian rights and Palestinian demands," Ashrawi explains. Palestinian leaders seem unsure whether the peace conference, scheduled for October, will in fact be held particularly in light of the Soviet turmoil. Beyond agreeing that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is likely to try to use the Soviet coup as an excuse for not attending the conference, Palestinian activists differ over their own policy should Moscow withdraw as a co-sponsor of the meeting, leaving Washington as the sole organizer. Some, like Abu Ayyash, feel that the peace process "is an American and European dish with some Soviet flavoring, and you can get by without the spices." Others, such as Hanan Ashrawi, believe that without Soviet cosponsorship, a Palestinian presence "would be very difficult. To restrict yourself more and more to the domination of one power is not going to be helpful. We need to expand participation, not contract it."

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