IN reaching a historic accord with Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization might have triggered a premature process of normalization between Israel and the Arab states that could undermine its own bargaining position for an independent Palestinian state at the last stage of the peace process.
Palestinian leaders and analysts, including those who support the accord, express concern that the Arab states will use the Israeli-PLO agreement as a pretext for striking their own deals with Israel, and then leave the Palestinians on their own.
``It is our right to ask our Arab brothers not to conclude final agreements with Israel prior to reaching a final and comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli agreement,'' says Hassan Asfour, a political aide to Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), the PLO Executive Committee member who is considered the architect of the Palestinian strategy. ``We hope that we shall not be left out in the later stages.''
Syria, Lebanon, and Palestinian opponents of the accord have already accused the PLO leadership of violating a long-standing Arab understanding preventing any unilateral agreement with Israel.
Consequently, PLO officials, mainly those who were involved in the secret negotiations with the Israeli government, have begun defending the accord as only a provisional agreement and not a final solution.
The Israeli-PLO accord, hammered out in secret talks between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and senior PLO officials in Norway, spells out the basis of interim arrangements, including limited self-rule that will start in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho. The United States has offered to arrange a signing ceremony in Washington on Sept. 13 if outstanding differences, including joint recognition, are resolved.
Arab countries were shocked by the failure of the PLO leadership to consult them about the details of the accord. Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, which are participating in the peace talks in Washington, later gave reluctant backing following US prodding. But the three Arab states implied that the PLO must take full responsibility for the accord, and each left the door open for their own next step with Israel.
King Hussein offered to help the PLO, but also indicated that Jordan, which controlled the West Bank until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, was absolved of responsibility for any concessions regarding Palestinian rights and territories.
Palestinian critics and some Arab officials worry that the accord opens the door for Israel and the Arab states to begin a process of normalization before a final solution to the Palestinian problem is signed.
According to the accord, the two sides have agreed to cooperate in the field of energy, electricity, water, finance, trade, and transport. The accord also encourages international investment in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel. But Palestinian critics and Arab officials say this amounts to a green light to Arab countries, especially the oil-rich Gulf States, to start economic and financial investment in Israel.
Six Gulf states agreed Sept. 5 to support the accord and are expected to fund the autonomy plan in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They had cut aid to the Palestinians in retaliation for the PLO's support of Iraq during the Gulf war.
Israeli officials and economists say contacts are already under way with Arab and Palestinian businessmen to boost trade and investment in the territories.
The accord seems to give Palestinian legitimacy to an issue that has been a taboo in the Arab world and that Palestinians have always argued should follow the attainment of Palestinian national rights. A ``Protocol on Withdrawal of Israeli Forces From the Gaza Strip and Jericho Area'' would establish an emergency fund to encourage foreign investment and financial support to the West Bank and Gaza during the interim period.
``Both sides will coordinate and cooperate jointly and unilaterally to achieve these aims,'' the protocol states.
PLO officials say that the PLO negotiators could not secure any funding for Palestinian autonomy without including such provisions. They say that the US and Europe would not have supported the deal if it did not accommodate Israel's aim of gaining full acceptance in the Arab world.
``No Arab state, including Egypt [which signed a treaty with Israel in 1979], could have made such an agreement without Palestinian approval,'' says a senior PLO official who requested anonymity.
According to Western and Arab analysts, Israel has learned a lesson from its 1979 Camp David accord with Egypt: ``Camp David was a breakthrough, but it did not lead to Israel's economic and political integration in the Arab world,'' says an American expert on the Middle East.
But opponents of the accord warn that by the end of the three-year interim period the Palestinians could find themselves alone, negotiating without Arab support the sensitive issues of Jerusalem, the Israeli settlements, and sovereignty in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
``We are aware that if we do not play our cards right and reach adequate understanding with the Israelis, Tel Aviv will use us as a bridge to the Arab world at the expense of our national rights,'' says a PLO official.
``But these terms were imposed on us due to lack of Arab support and solidarity, so Arab governments cannot use this advantageous situation to abandon the Palestinians.''