The Palestine Liberation Organization is taking a hard look at how to transform itself into a full-fledged government. The PLO has been stirred into action by positive reaction to the declaration of a Palestinian state and its new dialogue with the United States. A PLO committee in Cairo has taken on the task of recommending how to turn the 24-year-old organization into a government, and a Palestinian legal expert in London is making the first attempt at shaping a constitution for the new government.
In Cairo, the government of President Hosni Mubarak, working closer than ever with Yasser Arafat's PLO, has agreed to retrain PLO diplomats, many of whose offices will shortly be upgraded.
According to Nabil Shaath, a close adviser to Mr. Arafat and one of four PLO members working on the transition, the provisional government will likely be formed within three months.
``We are looking at two pictures,'' said Mr. Shaath, interviewed in the Cairo office Palestinian publishing house he runs. ``We are looking at what the new government will require in terms of services and structure. And we are looking at what the PLO is now. We are trying to determine which of the structures will stay in the transition.''
Shaath said this extensive examination has just begun but that certain ideas have already emerged.
Most of the PLO's seven ``departments,'' run by the 15-man executive committee, are likely to be transformed into ministries.
``There is no function that's not represented,'' said Shaath of the PLO departments, which include a Political (foreign affairs) Department, Justice Department (which handles cases of ``misconduct''), Military Department, and a Social Affairs department (responsible, among other things, for pensions and 34 hospitals run by the Palestine Red Crescent throughout the Arab world). Additional departments cover education and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There has been some suggestion that the military department should not be transformed into a government ministry, but sources say the idea is still in an early stage.
In the more than 80 nations that have recognized the newly declared Palestinian state, the PLO intends to upgrade its offices to embassies.
``Our diplomats, 500 of them, need retraining in diplomatic history and protocol,'' Shaath said. ``It's one thing to run an information office and another to be an ambassador. The requirements are new.''
Last week, Egyptian officials, meeting with three PLO representatives, including Shaath, agreed to retrain Palestinian diplomats at Cairo's Diplomatic Institute. The institute has long been known for its work with foreign service officers from developing Arab and African nations.
``We said `no problem,''' said one Egyptian official of the task at hand.
The Egyptians present at the meeting were those working most closely with the PLO: President Mubarak's political adviser, Osama el-Baz, and Ambassador Omre Moussa, a Foreign Ministry official.
The PLO is also seeking advice from Egypt on the legal and procedural steps needed to win recognition for the provisional government from the West and the United Nations.
``We don't have names of ministers,'' said Shaath. But he added that the committee believed ``it will not be a government of technocrats, and it won't be a party government.''
``It will be a government of national unity,'' he said, indicating that all major PLO factions will be represented.
A political statement, issued by the Palestine National Council in November at Algiers, said ministers should come from both inside the occupied territories and from the Palestinian diaspora. But Shaath says West Bankers appointed to government posts could be subject to Israeli reprisals.
Observers here, who know the PLO well, say they expect that the ministers would not necessarily be the most powerful Palestinians within the organization. Many of the real leaders - such as Salah Khalaf, Arafat's No. 2 man; Farrouk Kaddoumi; and Khalid al-Hassan - may continue to maintain positions of influence behind the scenes.
Their power base could well continue to be the PLO itself, which informed sources say will survive the transition.
``The PLO will not vanish,'' Shaath said. ``Perhaps it will be an umbrella of parties.''
``Anyone who knows the Palestinians knows we will never have a one-party system,'' he added.
According to the Palestine National Council's decision in November, the outline of a provisional government is to be approved by the Executive Committee and then submitted for a confidence vote to the 70-man Central Council within six months.
While working on the provisional government, the PLO is also campaigning to build support in Euorpe and the United States for an international conference on Middle East peace.
In the next meeting with the US, the PLO will press Washington on the international conference issue, as well as on ``firmer recognition of the PLO and [Palestinian] self-determination,'' Shaath said.
However, the US seems to be backing away from the idea of the international conference in favor of elections on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and direct contact between Israel and the Palestinians.
``Elections can come when we're closer to a starting point,'' Shaath said, rejecting the US idea. ``Everything is possible, including United Nations' supervised elections in the territories. But these are not really needed now. Now we need to bring the Americans and the Israelis closer to a process that can bring real peace.''