THE Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership is scheduled to start meeting today in Tunis to reassess Palestinian involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace talks amid increasing internal pressure to suspend their participation.
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, according to Palestinian officials, will face the difficult task of convincing a disillusioned Palestinian Central Council (PCC) to maintain Palestinian involvement despite lack of progress toward an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
Although Mr. Arafat's survival after his plane crashed over the Libyan desert Tuesday will soften the tone of the opposition, it will also underscore the urgency of political reform within the PLO and the need for a unified negotiating strategy.
The officials say Arafat himself is against suspending Palestinian participation in the peace process because such a step would further undermine the international standing and credibility of the PLO and the Palestinians.
"The opposition is very strong. But he will put up a fight to keep the process going despite his personal disappointment at the lack of progress," said a close aide to Arafat in a telephone interview from Tunis.
Over the past month, Arafat has come under fire from Palestinians inside and outside the organization for accepting what are widely viewed as serious political concessions at the talks.
Many Palestinians are critical of the PLO's exclusion from the peace process and the Palestinian delegation's failure to secure a halt to Israeli settlement in the occupied territories.
More than 120 prominent Palestinian political activists have already called on Arafat to suspend participation unless the PLO is represented and Israel agrees to discuss territorial compromise.
Although it is no secret that the Palestinian negotiating team was hand-picked by Arafat, it was confined to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in response to Israeli and United States preconditions.
Six months after the beginning of the US-initiated process, there is a growing feeling among Palestinians that these conditions were aimed at excluding the issue of Palestinian national rights from the agenda.
`WE have practically given up our national rights as a people by accepting that our representation be confined to the occupied territories," says Ahmed Jamal of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
The DFLP and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine both oppose the terms of the talks and have successfully enlisted the support of prominent independents, who initially backed the peace process, in a public campaign to pressure Arafat to block Palestinian participation.
The fifth round of talks is expected to take place in Washington at the end of this month.
But some PLO officials argue that these demands are unrealistic: "It is simply too late to change the rules of the game after accepting them," says an adviser to the Palestinian delegation.
According to Palestinian officials in Amman and in Tunis, there are three options:
* An immediate suspension of participation unless Palestinian demands are met, which is supported by most PCC members.
* Continued Palestinian involvement without changes or conditions, supported by top PLO officials.
* Reassessment of Palestinian negotiating tactics without pulling out of the process, favored by the delegation itself.
The opposition's main argument is that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will use the talks to enhance his image as "a man of peace" in Israel's June elections without conceding any ground to the Palestinians.
Arafat, however, reportedly believes that Palestinian moderation will undermine Israeli public support for the hard-line Likud government.
The opposition also maintains that other Arabs will follow suit once the Palestinians suspend their participation, which would prompt the US to reconsider its position on PLO involvement. But Arafat fears that the PLO will be left out in the cold, his aides say.
The PCC is expected to grudgingly accept continued participation provided a new negotiating stand is formulated.
However, Palestinian officials say Arafat will have to agree to a time limit on participation and will have to pull out of the process if the talks do not lead to an end to new Israeli settlements in the territories.
Israel's continued expansion of settlements has reinforced Palestinian suspicions that the peace talks will not deter the Israeli government from a de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian analysts say.
But some officials, including close aides to Arafat, argue that the PLO should not jeopardize efforts by US Secretary of State James Baker III to pressure Israel on the issue of settlements.
Other top PLO officials counter that Arafat should not base his judgment on the US-Israeli controversy over the $10 billion in US loan guarantees, since Mr. Baker's conditions stop short of denouncing the settlements as "illegal."
"The loan guarantees are an Israeli-American concern. Our main concern is the settlements themselves," says PLO executive committee member Abdullah Hourani.
"Unless there is an immediate stop to the settlements and it is made clear that the existing settlements should not change the Palestinian identity of the territories," he says, "there can be no meaningful progress toward peace."