AT a time when Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat had hoped to be settling on the West Bank in the early stages of implementing his historic peace accord with Israel, the chairman finds himself in a struggle to save the accord, shore up deteriorating relations with Arab countries, and contain growing dissent within his own organization.
While the Sept. 13 signing of the accord in Washington elevated Mr. Arafat to international statesmanship, the failure to meet the Dec. 13 date to start the implementation has placed him under immense internal and external pressures.
Israeli leaders have accused him of reneging on an agreement they say was reached in Cairo by his negotiators last week, while Arab leaders and his own colleagues attack him for an autocratic leadership style and evasiveness.
While all PLO officials insist the organization has by no means accepted a draft Israeli proposal to implement self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, the Cairo fiasco revealed the absence of a unified Palestinian negotiating strategy and potentially serious differences between Arafat and some negotiators.
``It is an alarmingly chaotic situation. There are wide gaps among our negotiators,'' says a PLO official in Tunis.
The main difference is said to be between Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, who signed the agreement in Washington. According to PLO officials, Arafat has instructed negotiators to push hard to ensure to the extent possible Israeli recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, while Mr. Abbas believes the PLO should accept limited Palestinian self-rule at this stage, without pressing for symbols of sovereignty.
The Israeli-PLO deal, reached secretely in Oslo last August, provides limited and mostly vague responsibilities to the transitional Palestinian authority. Furthermore, its implementation is not possible without cooordination with Jordan.
But Arafat, who has historically feared King Hussein's claim to the West Bank - which was under Jordanian rule until it was captured by Israel in 1967 - has apparently avoided genuine coordination with Jordan pending a clearer, detailed agreement with Israel on the powers of the Palestinian authority.
Last Saturday, King Hussein warned Arafat that either he must start coordinating immediately with Jordanian officials or Jordan will take a separate course to resolve its problems with Israel and protect its own interests. The king's forthright remarks created confusion among Jordanians, at least half of whom are of Palestinian origin.
But on Tuesday, the king spoke again on television, stressing that his first speech reflected his deep concern about the Palestinians' future. He implicitly denied giving an ultimatium to the Palestinian leadership, but stressed that Jordan was worried about the final outcome of talks, and particularly the future of Jerusalem, which Israel annexed despite international objections.
He still made it clear, albeit indirectly, that Jordanian worries emanated partly from the performance of the PLO leadership: ``We hope this leadership would truly represent the Palestinian people and be in constant touch with the people in the occupied territories, so that they can be reassured that they have reached the level where it can be truly said that it is representative of all of the Palestinian people.''
Meanwhile, senior Jordanian officials swiftly sought to dispel fears and doubts among Palestinians that Jordan wanted to regain its influence in the West Bank.
``Jordan has no such intentions. We are concerned about the Palestinians, and we are ready to help in any way possible,'' says a senior Jordanian official.
In Tunis, however, Palestinian officials say, Arafat was seriously alarmed by the king's initial remarks, particularly the implication that the responsibility of saving the West Bank should have been left to Jordan in 1974 when the Arab League recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.
And Hussein's criticism has further fueled Palestinian demands for political reforms within the PLO. ``Mr. Arafat has caused the deterioration of relations with Jordan and destroyed coordination with Syria and Lebanon,'' charges Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which calls for annulling the accord.
Meanwhile, a delegation led by former Palestinian chief negotiator Haidar Abdul Shafi has demanded an immediate national dialogue with the opposition to the accord. Arafat has accepted the idea, but his opponents question his sincerity. ``He cannot expect us to start a dialogue on the basis of an accord we do not accept. Unless he starts a dialogue on the basis of our national goals - mainly the establishment of a Palestinian state, we strongly suspect his seriousness,'' says Abdul Rahim Malouh of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
But Arafat has secured support for his negotiating position vis-a-vis Abbas. ``We stand behind Arafat's current negotiating position,'' said Dr. Abdul Shafi in a telephone interview from Tunis. ``But this is not enough. Reforms are needed to ensure better and more efficient performance to chart out a sound negotiating strategy.''
Meanwhile, Arafat was able to contain, for the time being, a simmering crisis within his Fatah movement that led three young leaders to threaten to resign.
``Arafat has agreed to modify his decision to include new blood in the leadership,'' says a well-placed Fatah official in Amman. ``However, the young leaders' demand to drop personal appointments in favor of elections is still pending.''