A Dwindling Constituency Forces Arafat on Defensive

Critics worry PLO chief will satisfy US, Israeli prodding

FOR more than a quarter-century, Yasser Arafat's undisputed popularity has enabled him to survive Arab attempts to delegitimize him and American and Israeli efforts to write him off the political map.

But in the aftermath of last month's massacre of at least 30 Palestinians in Hebron by an Israeli settler, Mr. Arafat is under unprecedented attack by Palestinians. Ironically, the United States and Israel, eager to coax the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader back to the table, appear to be coming to his defense.

To many Palestinians, American and Israeli interest in Arafat means one thing: His signature on a peace pact with Israel is needed, regardless of how that affects his leadership or Palestinian aspirations.

For his part, Arafat believes he has a unique opportunity to gain better negotiating terms for the Palestinians, his aides say. ``He believes that he still has the upper hand,'' says a Tunis-based PLO official. ``He is sitting in Tunis watching the world come to him to ask for his approval to resume the talks.''

But Palestinian supporters and opponents of the Israeli-PLO peace accord signed last September in Washington now argue that Arafat has wasted an opportunity to improve the Palestinians' position. In the months since the accord was signed, the PLO's constituency in the Israeli-occupied territories has deteriorated.

Arafat's opponents seek a suspension of talks with Israel until the Palestinians secure international protection in the occupied territories, an immediate halt to construction of settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and eviction of settlers from Hebron, Gaza, and Jericho.

Arafat has not yet approved the accord on security arrangements negotiated in Cairo and Tunis last week that involves joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in Hebron, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.

According to well-informed PLO officials, Arafat has accepted the agreement in principle but is hoping to expand the size of the Palestinian police force.

But his colleagues and critics alike say the agreement will further discredit the PLO because the Israeli Army will still have the upper hand. Arafat received petitions over the weekend calling for an immediate halt in talks with Israel. The letters urge a broad Palestinian meeting, including representatives from the occupied territories, to reassess the Palestinian strategy.

Arafat's negotiating tactics have left him with a shrinking handful of senior advisers. Mahmoud Abbass, the PLO official who signed the agreement in Washington, has boycotted the talks with Israel. Ahmed Qurie, who negotiated the pact secretly in Norway, has ironically accused Arafat of succumbing to hard-line Palestinians. And key PLO negotiator Yaser Abed Rabo suspended his participation in the Cairo meetings. His group, the Palestine Democratic Union, boycotted the talks.

The dominant concern among PLO officials is that Arafat will satisfy US and Israeli prodding at the cost of delegitimizing the PLO in the occupied territories. None has so far challenged Arafat's office. The seasoned and mercurial PLO leader still controls funds and decisionmaking.

But this could change. Countries that have pledged to finance Palestinian autonomy have decided not to channel money through the PLO. Consequently, Arafat, who feels that the decision will undermine his leadership once he moves to Gaza and Jericho, where the autonomy will be applied first, has been trying to find other resources to finance his authority.

The prospect that Arafat will not remain in control of PLO coffers has fueled a power struggle as senior PLO members openly and secretly compete for a say in channeling money through firms they can allegedly guarantee commissions from.

Many PLO officials accuse Arafat of trying to control and manipulate funds in order to secure his position. The PLO leader argues that he will need to control funds to finance his apparatus in Gaza and Jericho. But critics say Arafat is risking the disintegration of Palestinian national institutions in favor of creating a network of patronage in the occupied territories.

Arafat's decision vis-a-vis the talks with Israel, and whatever deal he gets from the Israelis, is widely viewed as decisive not only for his leadership but also the PLO.

Although the revolutionary-turned-politician has taken risks before, for the first time he is having to convince an eroding constituency that Palestinian concerns come before his own political survival.

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