Yassir Arafat’s two-front battle

Yassir Arafat’s two-front battle

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Like the towering palms in Jericho and Gaza, Yassir Arafat’s troubles just keep growing and growing. Israelis and Palestinians, still at odds over crucial details of their historic peace accord, agreed to resume talks this week at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, but opposition to the plan for Palestinian self-rule and a rebellion against Arafat’s autocratic style within the Palestine Liberation Organization still threaten to derail the fragile peace process.

Fearful of losing control, Arafat continues to allow few, if any, firm plans to be drawn up for self-rule. Angered by the PLO chairman’s refusal to sign off on an economic and banking arrangement with Jordan, King Hussein last week testily threatened to bypass the PLO and deal directly with Israel.

Worse yet, Arafat faces new opposition from within the Palestinian camp–not from Hamas fundamentalists and other extremists who reject any accord with Israel but from within his own Fatah faction of the PLO. A senior Palestinian delegation from Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, annoyed at Arafat’s inefficient peacemaking and seeking “democratization,” walked away empty-handed from a meeting with the uncontrite PLO chief in Tunis last week.

Faced with that, three more of Arafat’s top activists in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza resigned from Fatah, bringing the total of high-ranking defectors to seven in the last three weeks. Given “the lack of democracy and the chaos inside Fatah,” says Jibril al Bakri, a breakaway Fatah leader in the West Bank city of Hebron, “we had no choice.”

New charges. Some dissidents have other choices already, however. A rival Fatah group has opened offices just around the corner from Arafat’s own headquarters in Jerusalem. And new leaflets critical of the PLO chief have begun appearing in both Gaza and the West Bank. The latest one calls for an investigation into allegations of embezzlement by some of Arafat’s lieutenants and for reorganizing Fatah “so that those who have been bypassed will receive a bigger say in decision making.”

The turmoil in the PLO is only reinforcing the doubts of Israeli conservatives who are skeptical that the Palestinians will honor their agreements with Israel. “Yassir Arafat is a famous liar–not a partner for peace,” former Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir once said. Even Rabin may now have growing doubts about the man with whom he shook hands on the White House lawn. Last week, the Israeli prime minister told Israeli negotiators that any deal with Arafat– even on the most minor point–must now be in writing. But even written agreements could be of limited value if the political revolt within the PLO continues to grow.

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