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Palestinians to Weigh Peace Moves

But efforts to build consensus on peace have foundered over demands of extremist groups

THE Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has given up hopes of drawing fundamentalist and radical dissident groups into its parliament-in-exile, and will convene the council for a meeting in the last week of September, according to PLO officials here.Although more talks with Muslim fundamentalists from the Hamas movement are possible, "I don't think they will be coming in," says PLO Executive Committee member Mohammed Milhem. "It's all finished now; the deadlock is there." The meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC), due to begin in Algiers on Sept. 23, comes as the United States's Middle East peace initiative builds momentum. At the top of the agenda, officials say, will be whether the Palestinians should attend the peace conference planned for October. Faced with such a far reaching decision, Palestinian leaders of many political hues had been seeking to build as much unity as possible among their fragmented organizations. "This is a crisis time, and national unity is required," says one Palestinian political analyst, a former academic here. But negotiators have been unable to overcome Hamas demands for massive PLO concessions before it joins the PNC. According to PLO and Hamas sources, Hamas is insisting that its representatives be given 40 percent of the roughly 450 PNC seats, and 40 percent of all positions in PLO institutions. When PLO officials balked, Hamas proposed direct elections to the PNC. Such a proposal, espoused by several reformist factions within the PLO, would inevitably be squashed by governments hosting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for whom such a vote could be politically awkward. The same is even more true for the Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas is also insisting that the PLO renounce its ground-breaking 1988 decision to recognize United Nations Resolution 242, and thus recognize Israel's right to exist.

Unacceptable demands Such demands, PLO officials say, are out of the question, and raise doubts about the sincerity of Hamas' professed desire for unity. "They deliberately set impossible conditions," complains Assad Abdul Rahman, a member of the PLO central council. "Hamas will only join the PNC if it does so with enough strength to change its outcome, and [PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat only wants Hamas inside in small enough numbers not to change the outcome," the Palestinian analyst says. Meanwhile, talks with Syrian-backed dissident groups have been proceeding no more smoothly, and a planned unity meeting in Yemen between the PLO mainstream and the radicals has been canceled twice in the past month. The dissidents - including Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) leader Ahmed Jabril and other breakaways from Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization - are demanding not only a broad debate on PLO strategy, but also a welcome for even the most extreme terrorist figures, such as Abu Nidal. Expelled from the PLO two decades ago for challenging the leadership, "Abu Nidal is not accepted at this time," says Abdul Rahim Malouh, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Meanwhile, PLO officials are engaged in a feverish debate over whether the Palestinians should attend the peace conference that US Secretary of State James Baker III is trying to convene. While many leaders are fearful that the PLO would be branded the obstacle to peace should they decide not to attend, they are also reluctant to join a process they fear will not even result in an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, let alone the creation of a Palestinian state. Popular opinion among Palestinians both inside and outside the territories is highly skeptical of the proposed conference, giving their political leaders pause.

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Seeking guarantees "The credibility of any top Palestinian leader springs from the Palestinian masses," argues Mr. Milhem. "Once he is no longer trusted by the Palestinians then he is finished, he wouldn't mean anything either to the cause of peace or to the cause of war." In a bid to assure themselves that the conference will meet at least their minimum demands, the Palestinians are seeking guarantees from Washington that US officials will actively promote a "land-for-peace" solution. "The Americans say they won't pressure anyone," says Abdul Rahman. "But if you are not pressuring anyone then you are not working for implementation" of UN Resolution 242, which proposes a land-for-peace pact. "We are not asking the US to send [Desert Storm commander Norman] Schwarzkopf to force [Isreali Defense Minister Moshe] Arens to withdraw," adds PFLP leader Malouh. "We just want them to implement UN resolutions that they voted for." The PNC is expected to give Arafat room to maneuver in his indirect negotiations with the US over guarantees, but at the same time delegates say they expect to set, privately or publicly, a bottom line on which no compromise would be allowed. Although more radical factions are expected to press for public recognition that any Palestinian negotiating team would be representing the PLO, and to insist on a sovereign state as the final goal, most analysts believe the PNC will settle for implementation of UN Resolution 242 as the minimum acceptable outcome.

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