ON the eve of the 11th round of the Israeli-Arab talks, scheduled to convene in Washington next week, the Palestine Liberation Organization is in disarray. The man who has led the organization for three decades, Yasser Arafat, is facing a serious threat to his authority.
The level of public opposition to what is viewed as Mr. Arafat's conciliatory negotiating policy and finanacial mismanagement indicates that he is confronted with a challenge he cannot afford to ignore.
He has already called for an emergency meeting of the PLO executive committee in Tunis today in an attempt to contain the divisions.
At stake, PLO officials and independent analysts say, is the 22-month-old peace process and the PLO itself.
"It is a very serious crisis," cautions Tayseer Arouri, an adviser to the delegation. "We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is fine."
Over the last three weeks opposition to Arafat's handling of the peace process has prompted two prominent officials to pull out from the PLO executive committee and a PLO military leader to call for Arafat's resignation.
Some members of the delegation to the talks say they are reluctant to go to Washington next week, and if they do, they will disobey any of Arafat's instructions to make what they term "concessions."
The crisis was triggered by Arafat's acceptance of a proposal to defer negotiations over East Jerusalem to a later stage of the talks and limit early autonomy to Gaza Strip and Jericho - a town that could provide a geographic link between the Strip and the West bank.
The Palestinians had originally demand a total Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are divided into two phases: The first concerns interim Palestinian self-rule; and second, final status of the occupied territories.
Discontent within the delegation, appointed by the PLO at the outset of the peace process, suggests that Arafat's move two weeks ago to incorporate leading members of the team in the senior decisionmaking body in the organization has failed to resolve rifts over the Palestinian negoitating strategy.
Faisal al-Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian negotiating team, has called for the formation of "a national salvation government" to prevent the total collapse of PLO institutions. But this idea was rebuffed by the major Palestinian opposition groups as "an attempt to create a substitute for the PLO."
A number of PLO executive committee members have already publicly complained that Arafat has made unilateral decisions without consulting the leadership.
The PLO repsentantative in Lebanon, Shafiq al-Hout, a respected and veteran member of the organization, suspended his membership in the decisionmaking body in protest against the Arafat's position. Mr. Hout's decision followed the resignation last week of the leading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish from the executive committee.
Perhaps most severe, Col. Munir Makdah, military leader of the forces of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction led by Arafat, called on the PLO leader to step down.
His call is viewed by PLO officials as an alarming signal that Arafat is loosing support in his own faction.
Critics and opponents of the peace process support Chief negotiator Haider Abdel-Shafi, who has repeatedly called for political reforms and vowed not to make concessions that compromise Palestinian demands. PLO officials said that representatives of the opposition and independents in the 18-member decisionmaking body were planning to meet and chart out a strategy to stop Arafat from authorizing a compromise with Israel during next week's talks.
But the leading opposition figures and groups seem wary of taking any step that will further undermine an already fragile PLO. For despite strong opposition to Arafat they say a collapse of the PLO would constitute a devastating blow to the Palestinians - paving the way for Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to make progress on their talks with Israel and jeoperdizing Palestinian aspirations.
Many worry that a removal of Arafat, who has become the symbol of Palestinian nationalism, will trigger the immediate disintegration of the PLO in the absence of a collective leadership and a severe financial crisis.
The organization is already suffering from a suspension of financial aid from the Gulf states in retaliation for PLO support for Iraq during the Gulf war and has had to curtail spending on refugees and other programs.
Officials close to Arafat strongly deny that there is a serious crisis and accuse Arab governments of orchestrating a campaign to destroy the PLO.
"There is a deliberate attempt to magnify the recent events in order to undermine the PLO. There are Arab governments behind this campaign," said a senior official who asked not to be named.
The official was mainly referring to Syria, which provides implicit support to 10 Palestinian opposition group by allowing them to be based in Damascus, and to the Gulf states.
But even though the most adamant oponents of the PLO negotiating strategy agree that financial aid is used a tool to pressure the PLO to accept US and Israeli proposals, they claim that by tolerating financial mismanagement and corruption Arafat is contributing to the destruction of the organization.