PALESTINE Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat is facing extreme pressure from within the PLO to reassess the accord signed between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington last September.
Loyalists and critics alike, according to PLO officials in Amman and Tunis, are demanding a halt to the peace talks unless they include the status of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and an international presence to guarantee security for Palestinians there.
Palestinian analysts say that Mr. Arafat is caught in a serious political trap as he cannot afford to walk out on the agreement or defy outraged Palestinians. (West Bank curfew, Page 7.)
Chief negotiator Nabil Shaath is expected to arrive in Washington today to lobby for American support for the Palestinian conditions.
But PLO officials contacted in Amman said that United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Arafat on Tuesday night that the US could not support the Palestinian conditions, but understood that the PLO needs time for Palestinian anger to abate before sending its delegation back to the talks.
In a telephone conversation, the PLO leader told Mr. Christopher that resumption of talks hinges on US support for a UN Security Council resolution to dispatch international troops to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories. The US so far has not backed the resolution, which is currently under debate.
The PLO did get support from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias, president of the European Union Council of Ministers, who backed the call for an international presence in the territories during visits this week to the Middle East.
Palestinian opposition to the accord on limited autonomy has broadened since Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed at least 40 worshipers and wounded dozens of others last week in a Hebron mosque.
After the massacre, violent protests swept the Israeli-occupied territories and, for the first time, involved Arab citizens inside Israel. The PLO is demanding the dismantling of Kiryat Arba, the settlement near Hebron known for its anti-Arab extremism and was the home of Goldstein.
The Hebron shooting has brought the sensitive issues of Israeli settlements and international protection for Palestinians to the forefront of Palestinian concerns, and they want them addressed before talks continue. These issues were not addressed in the Declaration of Principles negotiated secretly in Oslo last August.
Both Israel and the PLO had deliberately agreed to put off negotiations on settlements to a later stage to break the deadlock that had stalled the Israeli-Palestinian talks for about two years.
``But now it is clear that without opening the settlements issue, the peace process is bound to fail,'' says Tayseer Arouri, an adviser to the Palestinian peace team.
The decision to send representatives to Washington was an attempt by Arafat to appease both those pressuring him to withdraw from talks and President Clinton, who has invited Israeli and Palestinian delegations to resume discussions in Washington.
``Arafat was inclined to accept Clinton's invitation, since he viewed it as an opportunity to secure greater US involvement in the process,'' says a well-placed PLO official.
Palestinian officials say that prominent leaders from the occupied territories have refused to travel to PLO headquarters in Tunis for leadership meetings. And only seven of 12 remaining executive committee members are attending; five have already resigned to protest the accord and the way negotiations are being handled.
Violent protests in Palestinian refugee camps in parts of the occupied territories revealed an unprecedented outward manifestation of rising opposition to Arafat's leadership.
Arafat has ignored criticism by prominent Palestinians in the past. Even supporters of the accord with Israel have been disillusioned with the PLO performance and the negotiations' failure to improve the conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
``Nothing has changed,'' says Saeb Erekat, who replaced Haider Abdel-Shafi as chief negotiator.
They say that without tangible steps by the Israelis to address some of the Palestinian demands, Arafat might not be able to revive support for the accord with Israel, let alone his own leadership.
Some of the Palestinian demands, such as the dismantling of settlements and the disarming of the settlers, were unlikely to be even considered by the Israelis.
Meanwhile, the PLO leader is struggling to find a way to salvage the peace process without destroying his organization's credibility and legitimacy among Palestinians.
``We do not want to kill the peace process, but we do not want it to kill us,'' says PLO executive committee member Yasser Abed Rabo, one of the few officials standing by Arafat at one of the leader's gloomiest moments, summing up the dilemma.