THROUGH the years, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has risen from an undisciplined and incohesive movement. It remains, however, haunted by the symbolism of its past. Guerrilla factions formed, merged, disbanded, split, and changed their names in a bewildering dance that outsiders found incomprehensible.
Now, more than a decade since the PLO turned to political struggle, it faces challenges that could push the organization into obscurity. While radical groups within the PLO have been marginalized by international events in recent years, Yasser Arafat's grip over the PLO apparatus has also weakened.
Jolted by political isolation, the Soviet Jewish immigration, and the weakened state of the intifadah, old fissures have erupted. The PLO's ability to defend Palestinian interests and fulfill its "governmental" functions has been curtailed. Vocal demands for reform are being trumpeted by both "independents" and "radicals" inside the PLO.
Khaled Hassan, a senior Arafat adviser with strong ties to conservative Gulf states, has echoed the resentment among independents within the PLO. He blasted the dominant role played by the various factions, and the fact that independents are primarily used to tip the balance against one faction or another.
Angered by Mr. Arafat's pattern of poor policy decisions and the PLO chairman's embrace of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Hassan has openly circulated his own plan to reinvigorate the PLO with new elections. Elections, Hassan said, "would settle once and for all any charges that the PLO was not the legitimate representative of the Palestinians." They would put new life into the intifadah and bring together competing Palestinian factions on the basis of democracy.
Currently, the persistence of factional politics within the PLO has caused the debate over internal reform to become bogged down in a battle for loyalties within the PLO leadership in Tunis. At a meeting of Arafat's Fatch Central Committee last month, Hani Hassan, also a senior adviser to Arafat, issued a hard-hitting report that questioned the PLO leader's style of leadership, his monopoly of power inside the PLO apparatus, and his control of PLO coffers.
Independent and radical factions confirm the presence of a dangerous vacuum within the PLO's leadership. This situation emerged in the aftermath of the assassinations, in recent years, of Arafat's deputy Salah Khalaf (Abu lyad), PLO security chief Hayel Abdul Hamid (Abu Hol), and PLO military chief Khalil Wazir.
The disappearance of these men removed a major source of checks and balances on Arafat's personal authority. His refusal to replace them has heightened demands for a comprehensive democratic process inside the PLO.
Arafat's refusal to name a successor to replace him in the event of his death has compounded criticism. Senior Arafat advisers fear that his absence could cause the PLO to fracture and ultimately fade into obscurity.
ALTHOUGH the PLO owed its political revival during the late 1980s to the eruption of the intifadah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the organization has not made any attempt to strengthen the rebellion with new strategy or tactics.
Israeli authorities, meanwhile, have exploited divisions and rivalries within the territories to foment further civil strife and undermine the PLO's strength among its constituency in the territories.
Stifled by contradictions and confusion, the intifadah is now dominated by power-hungry street activists led by the militant Islamic group, Hamas, and by PLO rejectionists. These activists have a flagrant disregard for authority and overtly challenge the official intifadah leadership.
An alliance between PLO rejectionists and Hamas extremists has surfaced in the territories, prompting violent skirmishes between Hamas and pro-Arafat groups. Hamas's agenda, in contrast to that of the PLO, is both organized and sophisticated.
Hamas recently trounced pro-PLO candidates in community elections in the traditionally liberal West Bank town of Ramallah. It scored similar successes in Gaza and Hebron. As Khaled Hassan remarked, "The only Palestinian organizations that matter are Fatah and Hamas. This is a decisive moment. It will be either Islamicism or nationalism, either this or that. If we reach a settlement [with the Israelis], we nationalists will prevail. If not, they will be in control."
The prospect of power shifting from Arafat's base in Tunis to the leadership inside the occupied territories looms over the PLO. The great distance between Tunis and the Palestinians living under Israel's occupation have added to the internal discontent. With the loss of patronage and financial support from its traditional supporters in the Gulf, the PLO may yet fall apart.
Arafat's failure to deal properly with the PLO radicals - for the sake of unity - has come back to haunt him. The radicals, too, have openly called for elections for a new collective leadership of the PLO.
An upcoming meeting of the Palestine Central Council promises to be a stormy session for Arafat. Arafat may try to preempt some of the criticism. Already reports are circulating out of Tunis that Arafat is about to purge his military command, particularly in Lebanon. Is this move aimed at removing the threat of a revolt? We may never know.
In summary, the PLO remains enchained in the symbolism of its past. To insure its survival, the organization must take a course that will shed its image as a "historic symbol" and reassert itself as a true democratic institution.