THE abrupt departure for Tunis yesterday of three leading Palestinians, to hand in their resignations as Middle East peace negotiators to PLO headquarters, has thrown into dramatic relief the disarray prevailing in the Palestinian camp.
The move has also possibly opened the way for the first direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinian analysts say.
Faisal Husseini, the head of the peace delegation, Hanan Ashrawi, its spokeswoman, and Saeb Erakat, deputy head, made their move after serious differences with PLO chief Yasser Arafat emerged last week during the visit of US Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Top Palestinian negotiator Haider Abdel-Shafi also left his Gaza home for Tunis yesterday, along with other members of the negotiating team, apparently to try to mediate in the dispute.
The rift centers on how the Palestinians should respond to a US-drafted "declaration of principles" designed to serve as a basis for talks with Israel on Palestinian autonomy. The delegation at first refused to give Mr. Christopher the PLO response, saying it made too many concessions, only to find out that he had already learned its content from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Eventually, Mr. Husseini handed Christopher an amended version of the PLO draft, making clear he did so under duress.
At the root of the incident lie thorny questions about the ties between Palestinian negotiators from the Israeli-occupied territories and the PLO leadership. The clash has also called into question the delegation's authority.
"The delegation is losing credibility among its constituency, with the Americans, and with the Israelis," complains Tayseer Aruri, an adviser to the negotiating team. The dance with Tunis
The negotiators have insisted from the start of the peace process, nearly two years ago, that they are answerable to Tunis, and that they are involved only because neither Israel nor the United States is prepared to negotiate directly with the PLO.
Recently, however, Dr. Abdel Shafi - a founding member of the PLO - has been demanding more decisionmaking powers for the delegation, and has also been calling publicly for a collective leadership of the PLO, chosen democratically. Demonstrating his readiness to challenge Tunis, he boycotted the last round of talks with Christopher, and has been outspoken in his opposition to the concessions Mr. Arafat seems ready to make.
Against the advice of the negotiators, the PLO chairman is prepared to discuss the US proposal - inspired by the Israelis - for "early empowerment" of the Palestinians under autonomy, offering them functional administrative authority rather than territorial jurisdiction.
Arafat also seems prepared to drop the status of East Jerusalem from the agenda for the time being, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Intensely concerned by the general unpopularity of the peace process among Palestinians in the occupied territories - a poll last week found 56 percent in favor of abandoning the talks under the present rules - the delegation is wary of making too many concessions. If Arafat was hoping that the delegates would give him political cover for an unpopular agreement, by taking responsibility for it, the delegation leaders' move yesterday appeared designed to disappoint him.
"They want the public to know that it is Arafat, not them, that is making the concessions," says Ali Jarbawi, a political analyst at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, who expects Husseini and his colleagues to be talked out of their resignation threats. "If they do resign, what will happen to their political careers? Without the peace process they are nothing." Arafat's motives
Some Palestinians, however, suggest that Arafat may seek to use the current crisis in order to dispense with the delegation, and realize his dream of drawing Israel into direct negotiations with him for the first time.
"Sometimes we feel that [Arafat] is more focused on using the peace process as a vehicle to ensure a direct role for the PLO," says one top negotiator.
The concessions Arafat is dangling before the Israelis could also be bait, suggests another delegation member. "We spend hours pressing for a direct role for the PLO, and then we get instructions that imply that if ever the PLO gets to the negotiating table, it would accept the unthinkable," he says.
Certainly the Israeli government has appeared to be moving toward direct negotiations with the PLO since it lifted the ban on Israelis meeting PLO officials last September. Cabinet minister Yossi Sarid met top Arafat aide Nabil Shaath in Cairo two weeks ago, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin complained last week that "never have I seen such an unstable, splintered, and messed-up group [as the Palestinians]. It is impossible to know whom we should talk to."