IN the wake of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, the Palestinian Liberation Organization is trying to boost its role in the negotiating process by rallying Arab and European support for their position in the coming direct talks with Israel, Palestinian officials say.The officials add that the PLO is hoping to redefine the proposed five-year interim period of limited self-rule for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. The proposal was part of the 1979 Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel, and has now been revived in the Madrid peace process. The Palestinians want to ensure that limited self-rule will give way to a Palestinian state, which Israel opposes. The interim period is expected to be the main item on the agenda of the upcoming direct negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. "We have no problem discussing the details of the interim period, but it has to be clear that this interim period will involve phased Israeli withdrawal and will lead to Palestinian self-determination," says Bassam Abu Sherif, a political adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Haider Abdel-Shafi, leader of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid, declared Palestinian acceptance of the American-proposed interim period but said it should not be transformed into "a permanent status." But the number one priority for the Palestinians is to secure a halt to Israeli settlements in the occupied Arab territories, which Palestinians fear will result in a de facto Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Secret meetings Mr. Arafat, who has been assuming an increasingly public role in directing the delegation, has already secretly met three times with members of the Palestinian team to discuss negotiating tactics, Palestinian officials said. The PLO has decided, according to the officials, to start a campaign to secure Arab backing to build up international, particularly European, pressure on the US to postpone once again the $10 billion in loan guarantees sought by Israel. During the run-up to the Madrid talks, Washington put off consideration of Israel's request until January. Members of the Palestinian delegation, who arrived in Amman Wednesday night, said the only way to make Israel stop building the settlements was for the US to stop funding Israel. "If [the Israelis] have the money, they will continue building the settlements. If they don't have the money then they won't build them," argued Saeb Erekat, one of the Palestinian delegates. A senior PLO official said the organization did not expect the US to exert public pressure on Israel or an Israeli declaration to stop the settlements. "We care more about the situation on the ground. If the Israelis simply stopped building settlements while the negotiations are going on that will be enough," the official said on condition of anonymity. Another, perennial element in the Palestinian strategy is to secure Arab backing for their demands. Arafat has started an Arab tour to rally the support of Jordan, Syria and Egypt for the Palestinian position.
Syria's hard line Palestinian officials said Arafat was encouraged by Syria's tough language in Madrid. Syria insists on a total Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. If Arafat succeeds in securing a Syrian commitment to support the Palestinian demand for an immediate halt to the Israeli settlements prior to further negotiations, the PLO might heed Damascus's call for a boycott of the regional talks, the officials said. The regional talks between Israel and all of the Arab countries will focus on security arrangements and disputes over water and other resources. But Arafat, say Palestinian officials, is still afraid to trust that Syria will not abandon the Palestinians if it secures an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Other partners, including Jordan and Egypt, are against following Syria's lead. The lack of a unified Arab negotiating position places the Palestinians in a difficult position, because they still cannot figure out how to act if their demands are not met, PLO officials and members of the delegation admit. "We cannot afford to pull out our delegation and jeopardize the international acclaim we won, yet at the same time we might loose popular support if Israel does not stop the settlements," said one PLO official.