PLO Huddles, Seeking US Help
As talks with Israel stall, PLO chief Arafat plans an unusual meeting with Palestinian leaders today, hoping to rally support for a new course of action
YASSER Arafat, facing a near rebellion within his ranks over the impasse in implementing the 1993 accord with Israel, has summoned the PLO's Executive Committee to meet today in Cairo.
Mr. Arafat is expected to seek approval for the cessation of talks until the United States and other nations can persuade Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank, allowing elections for a Palestinian self-rule council.
If the meeting actually takes place, Arafat may also seek public censure of Israel for what is seen as its failure to meet its commitments under the accord.
It will be the first time that the PLO Executive Committee, the body that signed the accord with Israel 17 months ago, will have the opportunity to pass judgment on the peace process and to recommend a new course of action.
It is also the first time that Palestinians outside of Arafat's dominant Fatah faction of the PLO will be able to express the growing resentment that has been building up in Palestinian ranks over the accord.
A decision to suspend further talks until Israel offers something new could increase international pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Israel was supposed to redeploy Israeli troops on the West Bank away from Palestinian population centers so that elections can be held.
``We are committed to the peace process, but at the same time we have arrived at an impasse,'' Arafat told reporters in Paris yesterday.
Under the 1993 accord, the parties were to have negotiated troop redeployment and elections for a Palestinian self-rule council by July of last year.
The process has bogged down, Palestinian negotiators say, because Mr. Rabin linked further progress with the accord to Arafat demonstrating that he is able to contain Islamic militants opposed to the peace deal with Israel.
Rabin is also continuing to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank. On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet voted to build 1,800 new homes in three settlements around Jerusalem. Palestinian officials say this violates the ``spirit'' of the 1993 accord.
``It is time for Arafat to face his people,'' says Jiries Atrash, director of Arafat's office in the West Bank self-ruled town of Jericho.
``The only option now is to turn our backs on Israel and explain to the world that we do not have autonomy or self-rule as is claimed by the Israelis. It is time to tell the truth,'' Mr. Atrash told the Monitor.
Atrash says that Arafat is likely to achieve a majority decision in the PLO Executive Committee only if he reflects the widely held view in Palestinian ranks that the time has come to expose Israel's delaying tactics and appeal to the international community.
``The PLO is a higher authority than the Palestinian Authority,'' he says, referring to Arafat's appointed council that was set up in July to administer self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
``In a way it's a desperate move by Arafat,'' Atrash says.
When the peace accord was signed in 1993, six of the PLO's Executive Committee members expressed opposition to the accord. Two of the six offered their resignations, but they have yet to be accepted.
When Arafat tried to convene a meeting of the committee last year to remove the reference to Israel as ``the enemy'' in the PLO charter, he could not gain a two-thirds quorum for the meeting. The committee takes decisions on the basis of a two-thirds majority of the 18-member body.
``Arafat wants the meeting to be held as quickly as possible so that he can gain advantage from his sympathetic Egyptian hosts and use the decision to influence the United States and other Western countries to apply maximum pressure on Israel,'' another PLO official says.
Arafat made the surprise call following a Middle East conference in Paris on Sunday, where he held talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that failed to advance the stalled peace process, which is now running eight months behind schedule.
At the conference, Arafat accused Israel of deliberately obstructing the peace process in order to delay its withdrawal from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It was the toughest public condemnation of Israel since the peace process began 17 months ago.
Rabin, speaking to the conference in a live satellite link from Israel on Sunday, said for the first time that Israel would grant autonomy to the whole of the West Bank if Arafat helped fight Islamic militants.
``There is no political obstacle to implement everything we are committed to with the Palestinians,'' Rabin said.
``The obstacle is terror,'' he said, adding that Arafat could have control of the West Bank if he could disarm militias and ``terror'' groups and prevent suicide attacks against Israel.
``If that is achieved ... then we can move ahead ... Israel, on one hand, and - next to it - a Palestinian entity ... borders will be negotiated when we tackle the permanent solution,'' Rabin said.
He said he could not extend Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank unless he could convince the Israeli public that there would be peace. So far, he said, violence and terror have increased.
Atrash dismissed Israel's phased lifting of the four-week-old closure of Gaza and the West Bank as ``a drop in the ocean,'' which would do little to appease some 60,000 Palestinian workers who have been trapped inside the territories for four weeks.
By yesterday, about 3,000 out of 15,000 workers had been allowed to cross into Israel.