THE triumphant look Yasser Arafat showed the world last September when he signed the Declaration of Principles with Israel was gone.
The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) appeared weary in Cairo yesterday, as he put his hand to the agreement hashed out with Israel over the past eight months.
Mr. Arafat was aware that he was taking this historic leap nearly alone. Only two of his top aides accompanied him to the ceremony in Cairo. Faxes and memos from Palestinian leaders, particularly from the Israeli-occupied territories, poured into his offices in Tunis until the last minute, urging him not to sign.
``It was too late, the die was cast. Arafat feels he cannot go back,'' says Abdullah Hourani, who resigned from the PLO executive committee over the agreement but has remained in contact with Arafat.
The PLO chairman has decided to go all the way, undeterred by the provisions of the agreement that drastically curtail the jurisdiction of the future Palestinian authority and the risk of falling under Israeli control.
Whereas the signing was celebrated as a historic breakthrough in the decades-old Israeli-Arab conflict, the provisions of the agreement have alarmed even the most moderate Palestinians, who worry that the accord consolidates Israeli control in the territories.
``Apparently this agreement aims at reorganizing the Israeli occupation and not at a gradual termination of this occupation,'' wrote Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, in a lengthy memo to the PLO leadership in Tunis.
The agreement, and some of its annexes, which have been circulated among Palestinians in Jordan, indicate that Israel will retain an administrative role in the Gaza Strip and Jericho through a network of joint Israeli-Palestinian committees that will determine and run all aspects of civil affairs and security in the two autonomous zones. According to annexes I and II, Israel will play a role at all levels of decisionmaking, from writing legislation to approving construction projects.
Even though the agreement includes pledges by the two sides to prevent terrorist attacks against each other, no provisions ensure protection for the Palestinian people; the Palestinian police force will have no right to detain Israelis, under any circumstances, but at the same time is expected to prevent Palestinian attacks against Israel.
What most upsets Palestinian negotiators and officials is a requirement that each Palestinian decision, regardless of its weight, will be subject to ongoing negotiations with Israel through the various steering and supervising committees.
Further, none of the annexes refer to international laws as the basis for decisionmaking, which Palestinian officials say could make it easier for Israel to block decisions.
``The accord transforms the West Bank and the Gaza into an Israeli protectorate and reduces Arafat and the authority into puppets,'' says Tayseer Khalid of the opposition Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The shrinking number of PLO members who support the agreement agree with the criticism but argue that the situation will change the moment the Palestinian authority is set up in Gaza and Jericho.
``Our presence there will create new facts,'' says an official nominated to be part of the future Palestinian authority, requesting anonymity. ``As the Palestinian authority consolidates its presence, Israel will be under pressure to recognize Palestinian sovereignty.''
In private, Arafat concedes that he has not landed a good deal. But the man who has been wandering from one place of exile to another for 30 years believes that his only hope is to return to the land he has fought for.
He hopes that the mood will change once the Israeli troops start withdrawing and responsibilities are transferred to the Palestinian authority. The alternative, as Arafat is said to see it, is for the PLO and the Palestinians to lose their prospects for determining their own future.
At the ceremony, PLO executive committee member Mahmoud Abbas made a last-minute appeal for support from the Palestinians.
``To our people we say: We understand your reservations, your resentments, your fears. But this an opportunity for a new beginning.''
But Faisal Husseini, a former chief PLO negotiator at the Washington peace talks, said of the accord signed yesterday: ``This is definitely not the beginning that our people were looking for.''
The opposition, which has widened to include Palestinian negotiators, seems at a loss for a response. Petitions are being circulated to collect signatures against the agreement, and most PLO officials are boycotting Arafat, but many now realize the pact has changed the rules of the game forever.
``Palestinians have struggled for decades to attain a Palestinian authority,'' says a PLO official who plans to return to Jericho with Arafat. ``Finally they attain an Israeli-regulated authority. Can we free this authority or create a new one once we are back? This is our challenge.''