PLO-Israeli Deal Creates a Rift With Arab States
Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon say PLO's step undermines prospects for Arab coordination
AS Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization worked on the issues of mutual recognition and the details of Palestinian self-rule in part of the occupied territories, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat came under attack from his Arab partners for negotiating without them.
Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon have criticized the PLO for making concessions with Israel that could jeopardize Palestinian national rights and undermine the joint Arab negotiating strategy.
Palestinian officials and political analysts worry that the rift could hurt the PLO's negotiating strength in future talks on the final status for the Israeli-occupied territories. The rift could prompt Syria and Jordan to sign their own separate deals with Israel without coordinating with the Palestinians, the analysts say, and the PLO could be left without Arab support when it later presses for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories.
Both Israel and the United States announced separately yesterday that they still opposed the creation of a Palestinian state.
The deal to allow self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho - reached this week in secret meetings between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and senior PLO officials - would turn over administrative functions to the Palestinians, but leave the status of East Jerusalem to future discussions.
Jordan, which reached a framework of understanding with Israel at an early stage in the peace talks, had refused to sign pending progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front and an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the territories and begin negotiations on the status of East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.
The PLO's secret deal postponing such negotiations leaves the Arab governments to concentrate on their own interests.
Although Arafat has faced serious internal splits and attacks by Arab governments in the past, this rift marks the first time major Palestinian opposition groups seem to agree with Arab official criticism.
Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, which are taking part in the Arab-Israeli peace talks in Washington, were taken by surprise when the PLO and Israel announced their deal on Monday.
The three governments worry that the step will fragment the peace process and give Israel the upper hand in imposing its conditions on each Arab country separately.
King Hussein, who was particularly shocked and disgruntled by the failure of the PLO to consult with him, held a surprise meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus on Tuesday.
When Mr. Arafat called King Hussein by phone on Tuesday to notify him about the agreement, the Jordanian leader replied that he respected ``the independent Palestinian decision.'' The king's response seemed to imply that from now on the PLO alone would be responsible for pursuing Palestinian rights.
Arab criticism coincided with mounting Palestinian opposition to Arafat's deal. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, declared yesterday that Arafat no longer represented the Palestinian people. Other Palestinian groups and prominent figures are engaged in intensive deliberations to counter the PLO deal.
Two prominent members have resigned from the PLO executive committee in protest; others are considering stepping up their opposition. Committee members say Arafat did not secure a mandate from the 18-seat executive. Reports from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan indicate growing discontent over Arafat's leadership.
ACCORDING to Palestinian and Arab officials, Arafat deliberately avoided consultation with the Arab governments and his colleagues to override external and internal pressures. Over the years, he has maintained that he rejected Arab interference and attempts to contain and manipulate the PLO.
The Jordanian government was extremely alarmed by the PLO's approval of the Gaza-Jericho plan out of concern that economic hardships in the territories would force a mass exodus of Palestinians to Jordan.
Jordanian officials also worry that, since Israel would maintain control of the bridges crossing the Jordan River, those entering Jordan could be barred from returning to the West Bank.
``The PLO concluded a deal without taking into consideration the implications on Jordan and the other Arab countries,'' a Jordanian source says.
King Hussein, who in the past has been accused by Palestinians of selling out Jerusalem when he lost the West Bank, which was under Jordanian control until the 1967 war, was particularly incensed about the PLO's postponing of the Jerusalem issue.
Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and has been prodding Arafat to be more flexible, has been the only country to publicly support the Israeli-PLO deal.
Even the Gulf States, which support US policies in the region, have maintained silence. Palestinian officials are concerned that even if the oil-producing countries in the region eventually support the accord and resume financial aid to the PLO, these states may not hesitate to call the Palestinians traitors in the future.
Some analysts and Arab diplomats would not be surprised if the Gulf states publicly accused the PLO of selling out Jerusalem. The Gulf states suspended aid to the PLO for its support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war.
``The PLO might gain Israeli recognition but loose Arab and Palestinian support for it as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,'' says one senior PLO official who supported the peace process prior to the recent agreement.