YASSER ARAFAT is playing his departure for the West Bank town of Jericho close to his chest.
Not even his top advisers claim to know when he will leave the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization here.
But what becomes clear in interviews with senior PLO officials here is that Mr. Arafat is postponing his arrival in the Gaza Strip and Jericho because he is concerned about inadequate international funding for Palestinian autonomy and challenges to his authority on the ground.
Some PLO officials warn, however, that the delay in Arafat's departure is becoming increasingly costly, undermining the chairman's support in the Israeli-occupied territories and the PLO's ability to govern.
Arafat has said publicly that he will not be able to set up the Palestinian Authority effectively without securing enough money from the donor countries that have pledged to finance Palestinian self-rule.
Donors have pledged $2 billion over the five-year autonomy period. Earlier this month, they agreed in Paris to deliver those funds to the Palestinian Authority in monthly installments of $10 million - an amount Arafat says will not sustain expenditures, let alone support reconstruction of a devastated economy.
In private Arafat implies concern that the donors, especially the United States, are deliberately withholding funds to ensure the failure of the first-ever Palestinian Authority in the territories.
But most Palestinian officials here believe that there is more to Arafat's concern than lack of funds. Arafat, they maintain, is afraid that he could lose the control he has maintained for almost 30 years once his leadership is put to test in Gaza and Jericho.
``Arafat has a good reason to resent what he views as the manipulation of the donor countries, but his lack of action is making a bad situation worse,'' says a PLO executive committee member.
Arafat's apparent indecision has created confusion in Tunis. He insists on controlling operations to the slightest detail, ranging from making sensitive political decisions to approving petty expenses for his cadres.
It is doubtless that he is coming to terms with the sour repercussions of setting up an authority according to terms that still give Israel the upper hand. Under the structure of the Palestinian Authority, Israel will play a role in all levels of decisionmaking through joint committees. Further, the Palestinians will not be allowed to establish foreign diplomatic relations during the five-year autonomy period.
The delay in Arafat's departure is exacerbating the problems of a complicated power arrangement between Tunis and the autonomy areas, increasing tensions between the leadership in exile and the Authority on the ground.
Arafat had to summon three of his security commanders in the autonomous areas back to Tunis after a controversy over the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The Israelis have released two large groups of prisoners, but required that they be confined to Gaza and Jericho.
The security commanders accepted those terms, arguing that they were simply implementing the agreement between Israel and the PLO. But acceptance of those restrictions provoked demonstrations in the occupied territories.
The incident also sparked heated debates over how the PLO should deal with opposition Palestinian groups. The Islamic resistance movement Hamas and other parties have refused to recognize the peace accord.
Under that agreement, the Palestinian police force, named the Palestinian National Security, is charged with preventing armed attacks against Israel from the autonomous zones. Thus, following the killing last month of two Israeli soldiers at the Erez check point in Gaza, the Palestinian commanders found themselves in an internal row over how to respond to Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Brig. Gen. Nasser Youssef, the commander of the Palestinian police in Gaza, stated publicly that he was ready to commit 100 Palestinian police members to track down the perpetrators. Such statements threatened to spark a potential rebellion inside the force, since most of the police officers are former fighters and commandos who still can hardly accept the idea of working in accord with the Israeli Army, let alone punishing those who fight Israel.
General Youssef did not track down the actual perpetrators, but put in jail - a former Israeli prison - two Hamas militants. Arafat interceded, immediately rebuking Youssef in a faxed letter. Hamas got hold of the letter, through Youssef's rival, and publicized it widely. Youssef released the Hamas leaders and was immediately summoned to Tunis. Arafat apparently used the reprimand as an opportunity to assert his authority over his own ranks, while not bowing to Hamas.
Many officials here argue that Arafat expects his lieutenants, who he has sent to oversee the police, to set the stage for his entry, ensuring his control. Another explanation for Arafat's delay is that he wants to distance himself from unpopular measures the Palestinians are bound to by the agreement with Israel, especially regarding security matters.
``He is in a tough position, but he cannot escape from the terms of the agreement forever,'' says a senior PLO official.