AS the abrupt change of government in the Soviet Union calls the Middle East peace process into question, there are signs that some Egyptian officials and Syrian-backed Palestinians are stepping up behind-the-scene efforts to diminish the role of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.Mr. Arafat's credibility is still suffering from his decision to support Iraq's invasion of Kuwait over a year ago. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is, for instance, working under greatly reduced financial means because the oil-rich Gulf states severed all support for the PLO during the Gulf war. Now Egyptian officials and Syrian-backed Palestinian factional leaders are renewing their longstanding criticism of Arafat, taking advantage of his recent missteps. The nominal president of the long-sought 'state of Palestine,' Arafat has personified the Palestinian cause for almost three decades. But "what is more important is the cause, rather than the individual," says Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa when asked about Egypt's relations with Arafat. He spoke in an interview earlier this month. About two weeks before the interview Arafat briefly visited Cairo, but didn't leave his Iraqi-provided aircraft. A Cairo-based PLO official drove to the airport and spoke to the chairman onboard. Mr. Moussa acknowledges that Arafat is no longer welcome in the Egyptian capital. "We are all upset with what happened, with all those who supported the occupation of Kuwait," says Moussa. "We think they did a very big injustice to the Arab system and the Arab image and morale. They have made a grave mistake." Asked if the current poor state of relations is only temporary, he replies: "Nobody is called upon to forgive and to forget. But the world goes on. We will have to continue cooperating and working with each other." "But," he cautions, "not the previous terms, not on terms of just kissing and hugging and 'Yes, okay' and 'Mafaat mat,' [What's passed is past; let us look to the future]. I don't believe in that." While Egypt continues discussions with other senior PLO figures, Syria has had a long history of animosity toward the mainstream PLO groups under Arafat's chairmanship. In 1983 Syria backed a mutiny by commanders of Fatah (the PLO's largest faction and led by Arafat) in Lebanon. One day after Arafat survived an assassination attempt in June of that year, the Syrians deported him from their country. In Damascus, the radical Palestinian groups opposed to Arafat have called for talks aimed at Palestinian unity, according to Western diplomats there. The discussions are to take place in San'a, Yemen, in September, although Arafat has scheduled for that same month a meeting in Algeria of the Palestine National Council.
The Syrians want influence The grievances of the factional leaders predate the Gulf war, but Arafat's current problems and weakened stature have been seized upon by his longtime adversaries. They are expected to seek concessions from Arafat in exchange for reunification of the PLO's dissident groups with the mainstream organization. "The Syrians are trying to reconcile the Damascus-based groups and Fatah in order to get some of the influence of their own within the Palestinian movement," a Western ambassador said in Damascus last week. "Arafat could remain as a symbol if all the factions were united, but he could also easily go if his removal would facilitate unification." "Syria wants to control [Arafat]," the ambassador adds. "Syria wants to weaken his line, his policy. I really feel the PLO is dead. But it's a slow death rather than a quick one." Early last week, Khalid Fahoum, a veteran PLO official allied with Syria, said: "The PLO is not in its best position now; many Arabs around the world are against [Arafat]. Unity would give the PLO strength in the eyes of the Palestinians and the world." Mr. Fahoum is leader of the Palestinian National Salvation Front (PNSF) which groups together four anti-Arafat factions. The PNSF includes the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Arafat's longtime rival George Habash. Fahoum was speaker of the Palestine National Council from 1970 to 1984.
Concessions are criticized Like other Syrian-backed Palestinians, Fahoum rejects the idea, backed by the United States, of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to represent Palestinians at the proposed Middle East peace talks. He criticizes the PLO chairman for concessions toward Israel. Of Arafat's historic 1988 recognition of the state of Israel, he says, "The problem is, we [the Palestinians] want to be recognized." Radical Palestinian Ahmed Jabril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Commmand (PFLP-GC), called the planned unification talks in Yemen a watershed meeting in which "a new political blueprint" could be agreed upon. "Arafat believed that by making these concessions he would be made a full partner," says Jabril. "But instead the Americans put Arafat in the garbage can." "We understand 'peace' as the right of Palestinian return, self-determination, and the establishment of a Palestinian state," he says. "Any Palestinian leader who would make a deal without those three conditions would be beheaded." While Jabril's views are in the extremist camp, even Arafat's oldest allies have begun to chafe privately at what they see as one foreign policy error too many. A former aide to late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who has known and worked with Arafat since the late 1960s, told this reporter about a meeting he had with the PLO chairman during the Gulf crisis. The Egyptian spoke on condition of anonymity. During their conversation, the Egyptian says, they discussed power. He says he asked Arafat whether it was perhaps time for new blood in the PLO leadership. Arafat replied in characteristic fashion, according to the Egyptian. He abruptly rose from his seat and headed for the door of the dignitary's office.