WHILE winning the backing last weekend of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council for the Israeli-PLO peace accord, Chairman Yasser Arafat still faces the more difficult task of proving that he can lead the transition from a revolution-in-exile to an authority on the ground.
The challenge is formidable. Mr. Arafat tried to reconcile his ambition to maintain full authority and to concede to some demands for power-sharing by approving the creation of a new body, under his command, to supervise negotiations and the transfer of power from the Israelis to an elected Palestinian administration.
The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) will comprise members from the PLO executive committee and representatives from the Israeli-occupied territories, and will serve as a link between the Palestinians in the territories and the diaspora. PLO officials hope that it will pave the way for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian authority in the future.
But the Central Council meeting in Tunis that ended Oct. 11, and the establishing of the PNA, came amid a deepening split in the Palestinian movement that could accelerate a disintegration of the PLO unless national reconciliation is achieved, analysts caution.
Judging by detailed accounts of the closed sessions of the Central Council, even supporters of the accord expressed strong concerns that the PLO made a leap in the dark when it negotiated with Israel the secret deal on Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho.
Further, the 10 Damascus-based Palestinian opposition groups, which comprise three major and seven minor parties, have formed an umbrella alliance to try to topple Arafat's authority.
``It is difficult to claim that the accord was a victory for the Palestinian people,'' says a council member who asked not to be named.
``But most believe that since it has already been signed we have to deal with it and try to make the best of a very disadvantageous situation,'' the member said.
The historic accord, reached in Oslo, Norway, in August, establishes limited self-rule for the Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho, and sets the stage for final negotiations on the status of the occupied territories. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators began on Oct. 13 to work out the terms of security arrangements in Gaza and Jericho under Palestinian authority.
But the accord is ambiguous on the question of Palestinian statehood, on which the two sides are deeply divided. Israel remains opposed to Palestinian statehood, while the PLO views the pact as a precursor to Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In his presentation to the Central Council, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian mastermind of the secret negotiations, conceded that the PLO has plunged into an open-ended adventure.
``The accord could either lead to a Palestinian state or to the consolidation of Israeli control [over the West Bank and Gaza Strip],'' he told members.
Supporters and opponents of the agreement alike warn that without national reconciliation and a clear negotiating strategy, tensions in the territories will escalate.
Gaza and the West Bank, with the exception of the city of Jericho, heeded on Oct. 13 a call by the opposition for a general strike against the start of the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Egypt, partly to prevent clashes between proponents and opponents.
The strike, however has reflected growing Palestinian disillusionment over Israel's slow movement on releasing political detainees and continued arrests of Palestinian activists.
``Time is an extremely important element. The PLO will have to secure Israeli commitment to stop such practices or it will risk the erosion of support for the agreement,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, a Palestinian negotiator from the West Bank.
Many of the 100 observers from the territories, who were invited to attend the Central Council meeting, were startled by Arafat's irritation over calls for power-sharing.
The chairman, who appears nervous about threats against his life and growing dissent, has ordered the arrest of the bodyguards of three senior PLO officials for reportedly complaining that they were not getting their salaries and for criticizing the peace accord.
Several aides to one of Arafat's once-close associates and troubleshooters, Hani Hassan, were also detained to the surprise and discontent of many PLO officials.
Arafat's supporters say the leader will not allow anyone to sabotage the accord, especially since it has led to Israel's recognition of the PLO.
But others express concern over Arafat's rising intolerance.
``The PLO has not passed the test yet. Our success will depend on democratic reforms, level of readiness to conduct tough negotiations with the Israelis, and to build a national infrastructure during the interim period,'' says Mr. Khatib, expressing widespread concerns.