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PLO Tries to Restore Image After Gulf War

WITH a flurry of Middle East events creating a sense of urgency, the Palestinian Liberation Organization is attempting to throw off the ostracism it has experienced since the Gulf war. It is having some success: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had a long-sought meeting this week with French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas - his first with a high-level Western official since the conflict. And on Wednesday, a delegation from the PLO's executive committee met in Moscow with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.

In addition, United States Secretary of State James Baker III has met three times in recent weeks with PLO-approved Palestinian delegations from the Israeli-occupied territories.

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But the PLO is still far from the level of international support it had achieved before Mr. Arafat aligned his organization with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf crisis. Even Palestinian leaders agree it will take time to repair the organization's bridges, especially with the Arab countries of the anti-Saddam coalition.

Yet time is not something the PLO has in abundance, most observers agree.

Mr. Baker continues a suspenseful search throughout the region for a formula that has some chance of setting a Middle East peace process in motion. The PLO's Central Council this week rejected the proposition for a regional conference to start the process among Israel and four of its Arab neighbors, but that is the likely direction of any breakthrough Baker might achieve.

Despite that official rejection, observers here say the fact that PLO-approved Palestinians are meeting with Baker is proof that the PLO recognizes its interest in pursuing dialogue now.

At the same time, Soviet emigration to Israel continues, while new Jewish settlements sprout in the occupied territories. And the Gulf states, until recently heavy bankrollers of the PLO and Palestinian support programs, are no nearer forgiving the PLO for its pro-Saddam stance than they were two months ago.

``Time is pressing and creating a sense of urgency,'' says Khaled El Hassan, a member of the Palestinian National Council (parliament). He is considered a moderate PLO leader who has maintained close contacts with most Arab leaders.

``If nothing else,'' he adds, ``this is recognized as the time to make sure Washington does not forget everything it said during the crisis about the even application of international law.''

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Some Palestinian leaders had suggested that this week's Central Council meeting could include an unprecedented challenge to Arafat's leadership over his handling of Gulf policy. But the threats failed to materialize. One observer said the council didn't want to ``play into the Americans' hands at such a crucial time.''

The expansion of Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Arab land is causing growing alarm among Palestinian leaders that opportunities for sovereignty may be narrowing.

``There is this feeling that something urgent must be done to deter Israel on the settlements,'' says Jamail Hillal, director of the PLO's information department.

The Central Council devoted considerable time to the settlement issue. Palestinian leaders meeting with Baker also emphasized it, Mr. Hillal says, and the delegation meeting Mr. Bessmertnykh was to have pressed the Soviets to ``check the flow of immigrants.''

The group was also expected to ask the Soviets to raise the issue in the United Nations Security Council.

A number of Palestinian leaders, however, say the PLO's most pressing priority should be reestablishing relations with the spectrum of Arab nations - especially with the influential states that have moved closer to the US since the Gulf war.

The Central Council, which consists of 100 Palestinian leaders, decided to take such measures as asking other Arab representatives, such as the North African countries, to establish contacts on the PLO's behalf with the Gulf states. A likely candidate for the go-between role is Morocco, which participated symbolically in the coalition against Iraq but maintained ties with Arafat, including receiving him on an official visit just before the Central Council meeting.

PLO leaders also agreed to promote a common position on the Palestinian issue among the four Arab countries - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon - that would be likely to meet with Israel at what the Palestinians prefer to call a ``local'' conference.

For Mr. Hassan, however, such ideas are wishful thinking, since the Gulf states and Syria have signaled they are not interested in meeting an Arafat-led organization.

To skirt that problem, Hassan proposes creation of a Palestinian ``provisional government'' whose prime minister would be someone all Arabs could tolerate (Arafat would in effect be the head of state).

Hassan says the idea enjoys considerable support among the Palestinian people - perhaps because they are feeling the effects of the cutoff from the Gulf states - but it is not a favorite cause within the organization.

Despite its difficulties, the PLO is still considered to hold a number of cards. Mr. Dumas's willingness to meet with Arafat is believed in many quarters to be a first step toward reestablished links with the European Community, ties that were suspended during the Gulf war.

Some close observers believe that, given the prevailing strong and privileged relations between France and the US, it is likely the US was not opposed to a meeting from which it could cull some information on the PLO leader's disposition.

The Kurdish tragedy is seen by some as aiding the Palestinian cause: It is cited as an example of the kind of problem that could face world leaders if the issue of Palestinian sovereignty is not resolved.

Beyond that, some observers consider the average Arab's association of international legality and ``fair play'' with ``justice for the Palestinian'' as one of the PLO's strongest long-term advantages. Many Arab leaders insist that their region will not know peace without a resolution that is perceived as fair.

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