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Arafat caught in tight political corner

Yasser Arafat is caught in his tightest political corner in years -- under pressure not only from foes, but from traditional friends as well. The predicament has prompted moves to convene a meeting of the executive committee of Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. At press time, there was no announcement as to when the session would begin.

At the core of the PLO leader's problem is the issue of whether -- in his favored metaphor -- to wield a gun or an olive branch in pressing his bid for some form of Palestinian national entity.

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Arafat, to the delight of his Israeli foes and the alarm of almost everyone else, has offered contradictory public signals ahead of the expected PLO session.

In Egypt, which has been a vocal Arafat supporter and a strong proponent of a PLO role in peace talks, President Hosni Mubarak is understood to be fuming at the organization.

Cairo has hailed the accord, sealed in February, for a joint Mideast negotiating effort by the PLO and Jordan's King Hussein to secure a Palestinian entity ``in confederation with Jordan'' on the currently Israeli-held West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.

But Mr. Mubarak, says an informed Egyptian official, used the occasion of a closed-door meeting with party officials Sunday in a town south of Cairo to ``attack the PLO in a very strong way.'' The gist of Mubarak's criticism, said the source, was that Arafat must decide once and for all on a strategy to gain Palestinian rights at the bargaining table.

The official said that Mubarak was likely to take a far kinder public tack, for fear of nudging Arafat toward a harder line, or toward further equivocation on PLO strategy.

A series of events in the past three weeks has combined to paint the PLO leader into a corner.

In late September two Palestinians and one Briton seized and murdered three Israeli civilians off the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

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On Oct. 1, Israel staged what it termed a retaliatory air strike on PLO headquarters near the Tunisian capital of Tunis, where Arafat rebased after being forced out of Lebanon by Israel's 1982 invasion. Particularly after quick endorsement of the attack by President Reagan, later softened, Arafat faced internal pressure to harden his line.

On Oct. 7, Palestinians declaring allegiance to a small constituent faction of the PLO hijacked an Italian cruise liner and murdered an American passenger.

On Oct. 14, a PLO official balked at previously agreed terms for a milestone meeting with a senior Western diplomat, the foreign secretary of Britain. The terms included renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel's right to exist. At the last moment London nixed the meeting, which was to have involved a joint Jordan-PLO delegation

Predictably, the PLO's still-murky role in the Cyprus murders and the Italian boat hijacking has sparkad a reinvigorated Israeli campaign to portray Arafat as a mere ``terrorist'' with no political legitimacy.

The incidents have also undermined Arafat's bid for acceptance in the West. The US administration has seemed increasingly receptive to Israel's view of the PLO as unfit for diplomatic contact.

Says one foreign diplomat here: ``I thought to myself after the Achille Lauro [hijacking] affair, there goes 10 years of Sadat's efforts to make the Palestinians respectable in the United States.''

And on Oct. 14, even as the British-PLO encounter was foundering, the United Nations shelved a move to invite Arafat to participate in coming celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the UN.

As if all this weren't enough to worry Arafat, a PLO official was quoted as saying the organization was nearing bankruptcy because of the failure of all Arab states except Saudi Arabia to honor funding commitments.

Indeed, Arafat's setbacks abroad coincided with unprecedentedly wide complications in his ties with Arab states.

In the past, the PLO chief has played rival Arab regimes against each other with the touch of a concert pianist.

In recent days, the equation has been at least temporarily reversed.

Heading the list of Arafat critics in a badly divided Arab world is a familiar foe: Syria. The Syrians have been backing hard-line Palestinians who broke with Arafat during the Israel-Lebanon war. Damascus has made opposition to Arafat a top policy priority. The Syrians are particularly opposed to the February accord between Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein, fearing a peace overture that would leave Syria out in the cold.

But other Arabs are pressuring Arafat these days, too.

Jordan's King Hussein took the unprecedented step of publicly siding with Britain in its cancellation of the London talks. He has said pointedly that he is anxious to hear the PLO's version of the story -- the latest in a long line of Jordanian-PLO ``misunderstandings'' over just what Arafat has or has not agreed to in successive rounds of negotiation on a Mideast peace strategy.

Egypt is similarly upset. ``They have to come to their senses,'' snapped one senior official here. What should Arafat do? He should unequivocally declare in favor of theolive branch over the gun as a political strategy, said the official.

He added with a resigned chuckle: ``Whenever I've said this to Arafat, he says, `Yes, I agree 100 percent.' '' Then, the official indicated, he has acted more as if he'd meant to say 50 or 60 percent.

Tunis, the PLO's host, has been scrupulous in reaffirming its welcome for Arafat after the Israeli air raid, in which 68 people, Palestinians and Tunisians, were killed. But Tunisia, it is assumed by some Arab officials, may be having second thoughts about playing host to the PLO.

Says one Egyptian diplomat: ``It is my personal feeling that Arafat will have to find someplace else to go.''

Arafat also faces problems in Arab nations of the Persian Gulf.

The Gulf states seem less concerned with Arafat's own recent behavior than with a Jordanian-PLO accord that seems part of a realigned Arab power set-up trimming the influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO are the points of this new Arab triangle.

Especially worrisome for Arafat seems the Saudis' sponsorship of two rounds of prime ministerial talks to heal the rift between Syria and Jordan.

The Syrian hope in these fledgling talks -- the second round began Sunday -- is to encourage Jordan to back out of the Arafat accord. The Saudis' sponsorship, in the words of one Egyptian official, cannot help but present Arafat with the specter of ``losing Saudi support.''

At the very least, the official says, the reconciliation talks provide an already piqued King Hussein with additional leverage in his dealings with the PLO chief.

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