A SUDDEN and unexpected deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has stunned Palestinians, raising hopes that the peace and sovereignty they have long sought might become reality. But many are also deeply concerned that the organization's leadership may have paid too high a price for very little gain. Some warn that the deal may be a poison chalice.
That Israel is negotiating with the PLO, even through the back door, is a significant triumph for the organization, which since its inception in 1964 has sought to be recognized as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people and a force that Israel could not ignore.
Palestinian officials and negotiators, including those who have strong reservations about the deal, concede that it also has shown that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's tactics, pursued throughout the 22-month-old Middle East peace process, have been vindicated. He has insisted that no breakthrough was possible without talking to his organization.
The Middle East peace process was set to resume in Washington yesterday, and negotiators were expected to finalize a declaration of principles.
This would lead to mutual recognition by the PLO and Israel and changes in the PLO's charter, which calls for Israel's annihilation.
In exchange, the Israelis are to begin a limited withdrawal from the Arab territories they occupied in 1967, pulling troops back in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, which Palestinians would administer under an autonomy arrangement.
Yet the long-awaited Israeli step to begin direct negotiations has not generated a great euphoria among Palestinians, even though major Palestinian groups have said that a serious shortcoming of the United States-sponsored peace process has been the exclusion of the PLO. Potential split
According to accounts from some present at meetings in Tunis, what may appear as a major triumph for the PLO could trigger the most serious split ever in its ranks and undermine its own constituency.
Ten Palestinian groups have already called for the suspension of the peace talks; statements have been circulating in Amman, Damascus, and Beirut against the PLO's policies; and extremist dissident Ahmed Jabril, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, has threatened Mr. Arafat with assassination.
What could even weaken the PLO further is that Arafat has not even attempted to get an explicit mandate from top PLO decisionmaking bodies.
``We were neither briefed nor asked for our opinion,'' says a senior independent PLO executive committee member involved in last week's deliberations. Members of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks seem to be in the dark about the agreement.
Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi and deputy chief negotiator Saeb Erakat, who threatened to resign two weeks ago to protest the PLO's bypassing of the delegation, have said in press statements that they were not aware of the details of the deal and that the outcome of the negotiations is now the PLO's responsibility.
``It is a major turning point that only the PLO can shoulder the responsibility for,'' Dr. Erakat told Radio Monte Carlo in an interview from Washington on Aug. 30.
The state of bewilderment, bordering on shock, that has engulfed the PLO and large sectors of Palestinians stems from the confusion surrounding the details of the deal, a concern that the Palestinians will be trapped in a situation that will block prospects for sovereignty, and the fact that Israel has not yet officially recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Palestinians, including officials, seem confused by sometimes-conflicting Israeli and Palestinian accounts of the secret agreement on a declaration of joint principles that will constitute a basis for negotiations on interim Palestinian self-rule. Nucleus of a state?
Israelis have been suggesting that Israel will effectively remain in control of any land it cedes by maintaining responsibility for security, and will only transfer adminstrative functions to the interim Palestinian authority in Jericho and Gaza - points that are consistent with previous Israeli proposals and fall short of Palestinian demands for transfer of territorial jurisdiction.
PLO officials, at least the few who seem to know what is going on, imply that the Gaza-Jericho deal will be nucleus for a Palestinian state and will enable the PLO to establish a foothold in the occupied territories.
Palestinian support for the final agreement, according to analysts and officials, will largely hinge on the details.
``What has been agreed upon so far are headlines; the details are the crucial part,'' Nabil Qasis, of the Palestinian delegation, told Israeli television on Monday.
According to PLO officials, there are intensive behind-the-scenes talks that could lead to an Israeli recognition of the PLO if the latter accepted seven conditions.
Four of these conditions specify modifications of its national charter, mainly the part that refers to the liberation of all Palestine and the establishment of a secular state, to halt armed struggle, to stop supporting Palestinian groups that are labelled as ``terrorist,'' and to forsake its demand for the reptariation or compensation of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948.
It is unclear how Arafat can agree to the Israeli conditions, which are supposed to be included in a public statement, wihout causing an immediate rift among Palestinians and without convening the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinians' parliament in exile, to make such fundemental constitutional changes.
So far Arafat has completely ignored the growing opposition and most of his colleagues in the hope that his bold step could effect a dramatic change in the situation of the Palestinian people.
On Aug. 31 he told reporters that accusations that the deal surrenders Palestinian rights are ``an attempt to belittle the historic achievement.''