JUST three weeks away from Palestinians' first steps to self-rule under their autonomy deal with Israel, disarray in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is fueling doubts among Palestinians and outsiders about the organization's readiness to take over.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, activists loyal to Chairman Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah wing of the PLO are calling for a continuation of the intifadah (uprising) in blatant contradiction of their leader's orders.
At the highest level of leadership at PLO headquarters in Tunis, the man who signed the autonomy agreement with Israel on the White House lawn in September, Mahmoud Abbas, has been sidelined, according to Palestinian sources. He has fallen into disfavor since voicing public doubts about the PLO's ability to switch from being a liberation movement to a government.
The PLO's first two moves to prepare itself for a transfer of authority - the creation of a police force and the establishment of an economic institution - have both run into fierce criticism and demands for reform from the international community.
``It is complete chaos,'' charges Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.
``What has been done so far [in preparation for autonomy] is minimal,'' adds a Palestinian economist involved in planning for the future, who asked not to be identified. ``Our leadership is moving very slowly.''
Mr. Arafat is coming under unprecedented criticism. Ordinary Palestinians are upset that the PLO's framework peace accord has brought no change to their daily lives. Political Palestinians express concern about Fatah's increasingly dominant role. Intellectuals voice frustration over the PLO's poor organization.
``Never before has Arafat been so publicly attacked in the newspapers,'' says Ahmed Bishara, a philosophy professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and prominent critic of the PLO's lack of democracy.
Most of the complaints focus on Arafat's tendency to keep close control on everything that goes on in his organization. At this critical juncture in the Palestinians' history, his critics say, this is both undemocratic and inefficient.
``If this is going to be a one-man show, we won't be prepared [for the transfer of authority], because one man cannot handle all the elements,'' Dr. Khatib argues.
Khatib's ``Peoples Party,'' one of only two PLO factions besides Fatah to support the autonomy accord, is boycotting the current negotiations in Cairo over implementation of the agreement because of the lack of debate within the PLO.
``There is no clear negotiating position or strategy - or if there is, it is in the mind of Yasser Arafat and [chief PLO negotiator and Arafat aide] Nabil Shaath,'' Khatib complains. ``It should be the result of a collective effort.'' Emergency agency formed
At the same time, officials are being named to negotiating delegations at the last minute, preempting any discussion of their nomination. This happened also with the Palestinian Emergency Development and Reconstruction Agency (PEDRA), set up to administer the $2.1 billion in international aid that has been pledged to the future autonomous Palestinian authorities.
Arafat made himself head of PEDRA, assisted by his ``foreign minister,'' Farouk Kaddoumi, who has no economic background. PEDRA's managing director, Ahmed Qurai, learned of his appointment from the press, and three senior economists named to the institution's governing body have already resigned, charging that it is a political, rather than professional organization.
Such concerns were also raised in a confidential United States memorandum to Arafat, a copy of which was given to the Monitor.
``Donors will be reluctant to disburse assistance,'' the memorandum warned, ``if the mechanism to receive the aid does not meet the criteria to give it credibility.''
``Transparency must be the hallmark of the structure,'' the US note insisted, demanding ``openness and accountability'' in PEDRA's dealings. ``You need to be responsive to what is required to create a credible and authoritative structure.''
The PLO is to hire a management consultancy firm and an outside auditing company to meet donors' concerns, Mr. Shaath announced over the weekend.
Similar rethinking is expected in the face of international criticism of the way future Palestinian policemen are being recruited. Applicants to the force were told to present themselves at Fatah offices, giving the operation a factional flavor.
United Nations experts who are planning to set up police training centers in Jericho and Gaza are understood to have told PLO officials that they must begin the recruiting process again in a more evenhanded manner.
Meanwhile, the World Bank is wrapping up its survey of the most urgent needs in the occupied territories. To decide where to funnel the international aid first, the International Monetary Fund is assessing the Palestinians' needs for technical assistance, and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem are organizing training seminars to prepare cadres for their future duties. Much remains to be done
But a lot remains to be done, says Nabil Kassis, the new head of the Palestinian ``technical committees'' that are laying policy groundwork in fields such as health, education, the media, taxation, and water.
Only now, for example, are the committees organizing a survey of the trained personnel to be found among Palestinians in the occupied territories, so as to know what human resources are at hand.
Dr. Kassis acknowledges that given the scale of the task ahead, and the little time left in which to accomplish it, he is ``a bit worried. But not worried enough to stop working,'' he adds.