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PLO Recommits To Peace, but Reins in Arafat

THE wobbly peace talks between Israel and Yasser Arafat just got a big shove to speed up the quest for a Palestinian state.

The push came from the Palestinian team that originally negotiated the 1993 pact with Israel, and which now faults Mr. Arafat for failing to win wider Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank.

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Over the weekend, the PLO's Executive Committee met in Tunis and gave Arafat a new mandate to seek peace with Israel, but tossed some new decisions in the ring that will make Arafat more accountable to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

As the PLO met, an Israeli Cabinet minister stated for the first time that Palestinian elections, due to be held later this year, would lead to a Palestinian state with executive and legislative authority.

These events, and the scheduled visit to Israel of US Vice-President Al Gore on Thursday, could push the peace talks forward by putting more pressure on Israel.

Arafat could also come under closer scrutiny by being forced to consult more widely with Palestinians colleagues in exile before making decisions on self-rule.

At a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo last week, July 1 was set as the deadline for concluding stalled negotiations for holding Palestinian elections.

''Officially, it will not be called a state, but in reality it will be a state ..., lacking only responsibility for external security and the security of Israelis in Israeli-held territory,'' Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Saturday. Mr. Sarid is a member of the left-of-center Meretz Party and a key Israeli negotiator.

The Sarid statement drew heavy criticism from the right-wing Likud Party, and some legislators of the ruling Labor Party coalition expressed reservations. But Western diplomats and political analysts said Sarid's intervention was an expression of government intentions.

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Western diplomats said that Sarid's remarks would help bolster Arafat's position in the PLO and defuse growing criticism from his critics that he has failed to deliver progress toward Palestinian autonomy.

For the past nine months, negotiations with Israel have been conducted by officials of Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza, a committee appointed by Arafat to implement the five-year Palestinian self-rule agreement.

But the talks foundered over failure to reach agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and the failure to hold Palestinian elections scheduled for July last year.

Israeli officials blame the delays on a series of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants and Arafat's failure to curb such attacks.

PLO leaders, who remained in exile at the PLO headquarters in Tunis, have become increasingly critical of the negotiations and have charged that Arafat's team made too many concessions to Israel without getting anything in return.

But now the PLO, meeting for the first time since the signing of the accord with exiled leaders critical of Arafat's leadership, has reasserted its authority within the organization and set specific conditions for the continuation of talks.

''One could say that some of the power that shifted away from the PLO to the PA has returned to the PLO,'' a Tunis-based PLO official says.

Most significant, the mandate from the PLO meeting reinstated Mahmoud Abbas as its chief negotiator. Mr. Abbas was an architect of the accord, but he has been highly critical of its implementation.

The PLO also appointed a committee to hold talks with opposition Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and to insist on greater international involvement in the peace process.

''At least in principle, the PLO continues ... to play a significant role as the embodiment of Palestinian national identity and legitimacy,'' says Hanan Ashrawi, a former PLO spokeswoman who now heads a Palestinian human rights commission.

''There is an increasing call among the Palestinian intelligentsia and political leadership for the PLO to be empowered as the source of political decisionmaking and to provide the system of checks and balances,'' Mrs. Ashrawi says.

Even Islamic militant leaders acknowledge the PLO as one of the legitimate voices of the Palestinian people and respect its decisions.

''Arafat agreed to go to Tunis because he has lost support within the PLO,'' says Imad Falloji, a senior Hamas leader. Hamas opposes the Israeli-PLO accord and has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks on Israel over the past year.

''Until this weekend, Arafat had failed to have the full executive of the PLO convened, so he lost legitimacy within the organization,'' Mr. Falloji told the Monitor.

The Islamic movement has kept a low political and military profile since the bomb attack in Tel Aviv in January that killed 21 Israeli soldiers and a civilian.

Falloji says the period of calm should be seen as part of a period of ''preparation and construction.'' Some analysts say that the Islamic militants have called a temporary truce to allow the extension of Palestinian autonomy to the West Bank.

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