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Arafat's stake in the status quo

The current position of Yasser Arafat toward an agreement with Jordan and negotiations with Israel can be explained in a number of ways. He opposes both at this moment because he does not see clearly the possibility of a Palestinian state. Or, perhaps, as some say, he believes the time has come for movement, but he cannot get the agreement of all factions in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its varied supporters.

Could it be that there is another dimension to his thinking: a personal dimension?

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Fate has not been kind to those, beginning with King Abdullah, who made that ultimate decision to negotiate with Israel. Beyond the Palestinian movement, the history of others who led movements to create new states or to bring independence is also filled with tragedy or disappointment.

So long as a movement avoids making that final decision to negotiate or even to agree, the life of its leader, while not without its peril, is relatively secure.

Arafat today can draw financial support from a variety of sources, both those that favor some negotiations and those totally opposed. He does not have to make the ultimate choice among them.

Thus supported, he can travel freely within the Arab world - and beyond. He is a world figure, enjoying the prominence and the adulation of crowds in many countries. This continues despite the removal from Beirut and the apparent defeat of his military arm. It continues because he is still finessing the commitment to peace.

Until his conversations with Hussein, avoiding the appearance of decisions permitted him to maintain a degree of harmony among the several factions in the PLO and their supporters. It is easy, after each meeting with Hussein, to gather his council together, to present proposals, to hear the negative votes, and to report back that he tried but could not get their agreement. The act could be genuine; it could also be a political charade designed to preserve both the appearance of effort and the avoidance of decision.

Arafat knows that any decision to negotiate with Israel is a high risk, a risk not only to his position, but to his life.

If he knows the history of other similar movements, as he must, he knows also that a decision to negotiate or to agree to a final arrangement can totally change the political environment in which he operates.

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His objective is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan, and including the Gaza Strip. He has not been in that territory for many years. If a state were established, he would undoubtedly return - if permitted to do so under the agreement - as a hero. If one looks at the history of Algeria, for example, this might be only the beginning of a new set of challenges. Those who have lived under the occupation may have their own views of the nature and policies of the state. The conflict between the leaders of the exterior and the people of the interior could begin here as it has elsewhere.

Even if successful in establishing himself as the leader of a new state, he would then face the responsibilities of governing. Governing is quite a different task from agitating. Few leaders of liberation movements have been totally successful.

In many ways Sam Nujumo, leader of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), seeking independence for Namibia, faces the same kind of personal dilemma. He, too, may find it easier to consult with his council and to say ''no'' rather than to face up to the risks and uncertainties that might follow even a favorable agreement.

If the personal factor is present in Arafat's thinking - and, possibly, that of Nujumo as well - it would not be surprising. The agreement to negotiate or to accept a solution could change a relatively comfortable and prominent position into one fraught with extreme danger and new political challenges.

What many in the Arab world may now be realizing, however, is that the risk of not grasping the nettle may be even greater - if not for Arafat at least for the Palestinian cause. The creeping annexation of the West Bank and the growing stiffness in Israel's position may make any kind of a solution that recognizes the Palestinian cause less and less likely. Arafat's survival becomes more and more problematic.

History has shown that there is a vast difference between being the leader of a movement and the leader of a nation. Some have made that transition. Others have not. The decision of Arafat to move from one phase to the other would be a fateful one; it would not be surprising, therefore, if the explanation of his current tactics lay not only in policy but in the personal dimension as well.

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