Palestinians Reassess Peace Process


A MONTH after he survived a plane crash in the Libyan desert, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat is under fire from leftist and rightist Palestinians alike, who are demanding a suspension of Palestinian participation in the Middle East peace process.

The opposition is expected to join forces this week in Tunis, where the PLO Central Council (PCC) begins meeting today to discuss participation in the regional Arab-Israeli talks dealing with economic development and the plight of more than 1 million Palestinian refugees.

The PCC meeting, which was postponed last month after Mr. Arafat's plane crash, will also reassess the six-month-old peace process amid growing opposition to the talks among Palestinians in both the Israeli-occupied territories and the diaspora.

Despite the strong opposition, the PLO leadership is expected to approve continued Palestinian participation, especially now that the United States has invited the delegation to include representatives of Palestinians in the diaspora.

"There has been no formal decision. But the leadership is acting as if it has practically approved Palestinian participation," says a well-placed PLO official, referring to contacts between the Palestinian delegations and the host countries of the regional talks.

The regional talks, also known as the multilaterals, involve all of the Arab states, Israel, and countries outside the region in discussions about security and economic arrangements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

So far the Arab-Israeli bilateral talks, which focus on territorial disputes between Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians, have been confined to Palestinians from the occupied territories, at US and Israeli stipulation.

The postponement of the PCC meeting last month enabled Arafat to authorize participation in the fifth round of bilateral talks in Washington last week, without having to face opponents of the peace process inside the organization.

But lack of progress in this round, as reported by Palestinian delegates, combined with Israeli statements that there will be no withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, has renewed public calls from the left and right for Arafat to pull out of the process.

"Palestinian participation should be suspended immediately," says Abu Ali Mustafa, a top-level official in the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The most surprising attack, however came from Hani al-Hassan, a close associate of Arafat and long-time advocate of the peace talks.

"The Palestinian leadership has committed a big mistake by accepting to take part in the peace process," Mr. Hassan was quoted as saying in the daily Al Hayat published in London.

Hassan practically repeated demands of hard-liners, urging Arafat to suspend Palestinian participation unless Israel halts settlement building in the territories, allows all deported Palestinians to return, and accepts the representation of Palestinians of the diaspora and East Jerusalem.

Hassan's comments were viewed with suspicion among Palestinians because of his close contacts with Saudi Arabia. However, his opposition cannot be easily dismissed since it is likely to draw support from Palestinians in the Gulf states and within the PLO's mainstream Fatah group.

But others, including those who are pressing for a firm Palestinian position at the negotiations, argue that at this stage the Palestinians have no alternative.

"As long as the negotiations do not close the door to a future Palestinian state [in the West Bank and Gaza Strip], Palestinians should try to make the best of the peace process," maintains Tayseer Arouri, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation.

Dr. Arouri explains that Palestinians have not dropped their demand for a halt to settlements prior to a proposed three-year interim period that would pave the way for negotiations over the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead of making it a precondition, they have given Israel proposals to annul occupation laws which:

* Facilitate Israeli expropriation of Arab land.

* Block Palestinian construction of housing.

* Give Israel complete control of water resources.

"We are not making it a precondition. But practical interim arrangements are meaningless if the occupation authority can continue to expropriate Arab land," he argues.

At a meeting in Amman, Jordan, this week, members of the Palestinian delegation came under fire from PCC members who expressed frustration at the lack of progress.

"We are fed up with being accused of all sorts of things. We are just implementing the instructions of the [PLO] leadership. If you do not like it, just take a different decision," said one angry delegate, voicing concern that the differences within the Palestinian movement are undermining the delegation's credibility among its constituency.

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