PALESTINIAN leader Yasser Arafat, defying unprecedented Palestinian opposition and Arab criticism, appears determined to go ahead with a reported deal with Israel on early self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.
Mr. Arafat's aides portray the Gaza-Jericho option - forged in secret meetings in Sweden between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization - as a nucleus for a Palestinian state. The PLO chairman would move to Jericho this fall to negotiate Palestinian statehood from inside the Israeli-occupied territories.
But Arafat faces widespread opposition to the plan from critics within the PLO and the Palestinian diaspora, who say he is taking a gamble that could cost him his leadership, spell the end of the PLO, and compromise the Palestinian goal of sovereignty.
"Arafat is taking a big risk," says Nabil Shaath, chief coordinator of the peace talks for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In a three-day meeting of the PLO executive committee Aug. 26-28 in Tunis, Arafat refused to disclose details of the reported deal, but made it clear he was undeterred by his critics.
Arafat "is convinced that he will be able to strike a good agreement with the Israeli government, and he will not allow anybody to stop him," says a PLO executive committee member who requested anonymity.
"The opposition will wane in a matter of weeks as the details of the deal are made available to the public," says Saleh Raafat, a member of the PLO Central Council who was among the first to break the news on the Gaza-Jericho proposal last Thursday. Splits in Tunis
According to different accounts of the Tunis meeting, Arafat views ongoing PLO-Israeli negotiations, even if through the back door, as a major breakthrough. Israel has long viewed the PLO as a terrorist organization, but the Rabin government has moved recently toward increased direct contact.
Arafat's critics also have called for direct PLO involvement in the peace process. But they worry Israel has resorted to secret talks to make the PLO leadership authorize the Palestinian delegation to make concessions on a partial Israeli withdrawal without recognition of Palestinian national rights.
Israeli officials, who acknowledge Foreign Minister Peres' meetings with PLO officials in Sweden, insist that there will be no total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip or Jericho, and that Israel will remain in charge of security throughout the transitional period, which could last from three to five years.
Mr. Peres met with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher in California on Saturday to convey the details of the ongoing PLO-Israeli negotiations.
But any formal agreement can only be finalized at the 11th round of the Arab-Israeli peace talks, scheduled to start in Washington tomorrow. The Israeli Cabinet was to meet today in a special session to consider the proposal for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.
Israeli and Palestinian statements, however, suggest a serious gap between the two sides over the contents of the deal and the paired goals.
Palestinian officials are talking about an agreement on a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho that will take place simultaneously with the establishment of Palestinian self-rule in the rest of the West Bank. Israeli officials refer to a limited autonomy in Gaza and Jericho.
What came to light at the Tunis meeting was that the Palestinian delegation, which was appointed by the PLO, was kept in the dark about the secret Israeli-PLO contacts - provoking strong objections from some negotiators who feel they have been used as a front for secret deals.
Arafat also faces serious opposition from the Arab states involved in the peace process, particularly Jordan and Syria, who say they were not consulted by the Palestinians.
The Jordanians, in particular, are wary that the Jericho-Gaza option could result in a mass transfer of Palestinians into Jordan. But Palestinian officials close to Arafat counter Syrian and Jordanian criticism by saying that all of the Arab delegations have been conducting secret talks with the Israelis and that the Palestinians did not want to be left behind. To patch up differences
As many analysts and PLO officials see it, Arafat will have to prove to his constituency that he is entering into a substantive deal with the Israelis that does not compromise fundamental Palestinian national rights if he is to avoid a rapid erosion of his popularity.
"Otherwise, it will be the end of the PLO. Arafat's move will then amount to a decision to destroy the PLO without getting any gains for the Palestinian people. This will have catastrophic consequences for the Palestinian people," says one PLO executive committee member who attended the Tunis meeting.
But the opposition has not yet decided its next step, or even if it will be capable of preventing Arafat from taking further steps.
Many worry that, as a result of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks, the PLO will explode from within, triggering the worst internal Palestinian crisis and dealing a severe blow to Palestinian unity.
"We fear that, as a result, the PLO will be discredited in the eyes of its people - leaving the Palestinians without a unified leadership for a long time to come," says a Palestinian official who had initially supported the peace process, but turned against PLO policies recently.