YASSER Arafat strode angrily to the podium, his black and white head-dress flying behind him, as pandemonium reigned on the conference floor around him."If chaos is our democracy, then we might as well go home," he admonished two warring factions of the Palestine National Council (PNC) late Tuesday. "We have to prove that we deserve to hold different points of view." Few incidents could better have highlighted the difficulties that bedevil the work of this institution, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) parliament-in-exile, which is holding its week-long 20th session here. The parliament of a state without a territory, it encompasses a widely diverse, and often polarized, range of opinions. Yet if the Palestinians are ever to win the decades-old dream of a homeland, "the only weapon I can give to my people is your unity," as PLO chairman Arafat reminded PNC members Tuesday. The brief shouting match, and Arafat's sudden intervention, also offered an insight into the nature of the PNC, which Palestinians sometimes point to as proof of their democratic vocation, but which critics assail as nothing more than a rubber stamp for PLO leaders' decisions. The truth lies somewhere in between, says PNC member Daoud Talhami, editor of the radical Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) magazine. "In some ways, we can say we have a democratic exercise, but it is a kind of wild democracy, not very well organized, and it is not very clear how it works."
Fuzzy on details The PNC, meeting in an elegantly domed conference hall overlooking the Mediterranean, is the PLO's highest deliberative body, but no one seems entirely sure, in the wake of last Monday's elections, how many members it has. Indeed, on Tuesday night a smartly uniformed young guerrilla was handing out forms to delegates, asking for their names and addresses. Its membership comprises about 480 deputies, besides the 180 seats reserved for residents of the occupied territories who are forbidden to attend the meetings by the Israeli authorities. About one-third of the delegates are named by the PLO's constituent factions, such as Arafat's own Fatah organization, the DFLP, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by George Habash. Another third are chosen by Palestinian mass organizations, such as trade unions, womens' organizations, and professional bodies. The remainder are prominent Palestinians picked by the PLO executive committee. Overall, officials estimate, Fatah members or sympathizers make up around two-thirds of the council, giving Arafat considerable influence. But this does not stop members from all points on the political compass from expressing themselves forcefully, as this week's debate on whether the Palestinians should attend the proposed Middle East peace conference has shown. Speeches have ranged from one by PLO Foreign Minister Faroukh Khaddoumi, urging a "brave and frank" decision to join the talks, to another by Mr. Habash denouncing the conference as "a plot to liquidate the Palestinian cause." In general, delegates of all political stripes concede, important decisions about policy are reached in Tunis, at PLO headquarters, in negotiations between top faction leaders before the PNC convenes. And even this year, when the leadership has been unable to reach any prior agreement on how to approach the peace conference, "it means the discussions are going on more intensely in the villas" where the leaders are housed, rather than giving the PNC itself more decision-making power, Mr. Talhami says.
Just like America "We are just like any other parliament, in America or in England," says Jenal Surani, an independent PNC member. "Agree- ments are reached in smoky rooms and in corridors, and when they are put to the PNC we make binding decisions." "Generally speaking, if the main political organizations agree on a formula, they carry a majority" in the PNC, says Jamil Hillal, head of information at PLO headquarters. "A compromise is reached, and very rarely is an issue put to the vote. "But in forming a policy, public opinion is taken into account," he adds. "In the PNC discussions, the limits are tested." That has become clear in the peace conference debate, in which almost all speakers have called conditions for Palestinian participation unsatisfactory. "We must set forth demands that unite our people and our supporters around the world," urged Yasser Abd Rabbo, a DFLP leader. How close the PNC really is to the people has become a hotly debated issue at this session, especially since nobody from the occupied lands is present. But with direct elections barred in the territories, and in most countries where Palestinians are refugees, this raises a dilemma. "We must find ways to make members of the PNC more representative, more accountable to their constituencies," says Mr. Hillal. "But the problem is not adopting democratic reforms, it is implementing them, because they will take really hard decisions, and agreement by the dominant factions...." For Talhami, building a democracy should not wait for the creation of a Palestinian state. "Arafat is a powerful man at the head of a powerful organization, and we need a balance for this power, to have real parliamentary life," he argues.