Calling the PLO to order in Amman

MICHAEL POSNER December 3 1984

Calling the PLO to order in Amman

MICHAEL POSNER December 3 1984

Calling the PLO to order in Amman



Her doctor warned Rukayya Houry that she would die if she made the trip. But the 76-year-old heart patient from Beirut came anyway, arriving in Jordan on a stretcher. "I'll die if I don’t go,” Houry said. “So I might as well die there.” The cause that rallied Houry—and hundreds of other Palestinians—was the 17th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), a quasi-parliament-in-exile for the world’s best-known guerrilla organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

After months of bickering and delay—and a rebellion that threatened to

render the PLO a spent force in the Middle East—a quorum of 257 Palestinians assembled last week in a spartan, tightly guarded sports arena in Amman. The decisions at the sessions, which conclude this week, could affect not only the quest for Palestinian nationhood but future relations between all Arab governments and the 36-year war between the Arab world and Israel. Declared Jordan’s King Hussein in an openingday address to the delegates: “The world—and the Arabs—will judge you by the results of your session. In your answer lies the last feasible chance to save the land, the people and the holy places of Palestine.”

Whatever the council’s rulings, most Palestinians considered it an achievement to have convened at all. For 18 months militant Syrian-backed PLO fac-

tions have waged a bloody campaign to end the 15-year reign of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. The core of the dispute: whether the dream of creating a Palestinian state within the borders of present-day Israel is best advanced by political or military means. In the 20-year history of the PLO, no issue has so threatened its unity and potential.

The Damascus-based dissidents, equipped by the Soviet Union and financed by Syrian President Hafez alAssad, are committed to armed struggle. Arafat’s mainstream AÍ Fatah movement has never renounced the military option, but in recent

years—pushed by moderates in other Arab capitals and on the West Bank—it has begun to hint obliquely at another approach. Last year Arafat considered a plan to authorize King Hussein and West Bank Palestinians to devise a joint strategy for negotiating the future of Israeli-occupied territories. After weeks of discussion Arafat withheld his endorsement, but the mere prospect of negotiations, implicitly suggesting compromise and formal recognition of Israel, set off a full-scale mutiny within the PLO.

By force of arms, the rebels succeeded last December in ousting Arafat’s forces from their Lebanese base in the port city of Tripoli. Since then, operating from Tunis, the 56-year-old chairman has shuttled between Arab capitals seeking support for his leadership and the sum-

moning of the PNC parliament. Assad, a bitter foe, blocked one earlier attempt to convene the meeting in Algeria. But when Jordan, itself home to more than one million Palestinians, offered to play host, Arafat readily accepted—challenging his critics to unseat him. “This is a quest for survival,” insisted delegate Nabeel Shaath. “The majority has now decided after a year of malaise and divisiveness that if we cannot come together, there will be no real force to represent the Palestinian people.”

The Syrians did their best to discredit the proceedings. In an interview with French television, Assad argued that Arafat no longer headed the Palestinian resistance movement because he had been expelled from Syria and Lebanon, the main bases of action. And PNC Speaker Khaled al-Fahoum, a Syrian loyalist who remained in Damascus, called the convention “a farce,” claiming that 100 deputies had been illegally seated. In response, the council swiftly dismissed Fahoum from his post, a clear sign that Arafat’s forces were in control. Assad’s call for deposing Arafat, charged Khalil Al Wazir—better known as Abu Jihad, his nom de guerre — masked a deeper purpose: to seize control of the Palestinian movement itself.

As the council deliberated, the Jordanian capital remained under heavy guard. Four hotels housing delegates were cordoned off by troops and police. Large sandfilled trucks stood between the conference centre and any potential car bomb. Snipers stared down from rooftops. Schools and shops were closed. That the PLO had even gathered in Amman, under Hussein’s protection, was an irony befitting the shifting alliances of Arab politics. A dozen years ago Jordanian troops had been called out for a quite different purpose—to push Arafat’s PLO guerrillas out of Jordan.

The symbolism of his return was reflected in Hussein’s welcoming address. Describing the PLO-Jordanian link as “an organic partnership,” the monarch called upon the PNC to support a joint peace initiative. “Perhaps you share

with me the observations that the picture is bleak and that, in consequence, it requires a fresh outlook and a new approach,” Hussein said. “Perhaps again, the natural starting point would be to emphasize the special relationship that ties Jordan to Palestine.”

If the PLO endorsed his proposal, Hussein vowed to marshal support in world capitals and to seek an international conference under United Nations auspices attended by all the major parties to the Middle East conflict. But Hussein also warned that the PLO would have to abandon its long-standing opposition to UN Resolution 242, a formula based on Israeli withdrawal from territory seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in return for peace with its Arab neighbors. A decision on the Jordanian proposal is not expected until the end of the sessions.

The summit itself comes amid a series of complementary moves elsewhere in the Arab world that may herald a new bid for a regional peace settlement. The steps include Jordan’s formal recognition of Egypt, the only Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel; President Ronald Reagan’s announcement at the United Nations that his abortive 1982 Middle East peace plan is still very much alive; and Jerusalem’s current negotiations with Beirut on withdrawal of its troops from south

Lebanon. If Arafat can keep the PLO together, then the possibility exists that, together with Jordan, a moderate bloc will be poised to launch a bid for peace. The hard-liners, under Syrian tutelage, will then be out in the cold. “The Syrians have lost this round,” said Fareez Mehedarin, head of the General Union of Palestinian students. “We will

prove that we control our destiny.”

But there are as many debunkers of that scenario as there are believers. First, Arafat’s victory in Amman may well be followed by Syrian attempts to block any Jordanian-Palestinian partnership, including efforts to eliminate Arafat himself. Despite Reagan’s rhetoric, Washington shows little enthusiasm for a concerted peacemaking bid. Israel itself has a national unity government unlikely to agree on whether to sit down with the Palestinians, let alone yield territory. And a PLO spokesman in Amman scoffed last week at the very notion that momentum for peace was developing. Said Ahmed Rahman: “We will not lead our people to new illusions. We must develop a new approach that stresses military strategy, not political strategy.”

If past performance is any guide, Arafat will likely steer a middle, but ultimately indecisive, course. His position will include condemnation of the Reagan peace plan, but not outright rejection; a call for an international summit including both superpowers; an eventual confederation with Jordan after attaining statehood; and support for more resistance among Palestinians on the West Bank.

That, analysts contend, is the Palestinians’ historic flaw. Espousing armed conquest to the militants and peace to the moderates, Arafat has been a political chameleon, all things to all factions, but paralysed by the need to maintain Arab consensus. The routine has kept him on the world’s stage for 15 years. He is unlikely to abandon it now.

-MICHAEL POSNER, with David Bernstein in Jerusalem, William Lowther in Washington and Robin Wright in Amman.


David Bernstein

William Lowther

Robin Wright