Pnc Conference in Algeria Bodes Ill for the Middle East Peace Process

The five-day conference of the Palestine National Council, which opened in Algiers Monday under the chairmanship of Yasir Arafat, bodes ill for the Middle East peace process and particularly for those in Israel and elsewhere who support an international peace conference with Palestinian participation.

The PNC, which calls itself the Palestinian parliament in exile, is controlled by Arafat’s mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization which has been split by dissension and violence since the last PNC conclave in 1984. At this, its 18th session, a great show is being made of reuniting the dissident factions under the PLO umbrella.

Extremist groups such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Naif Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front which broke with the PLO years ago, are represented at the Algiers meeting this week. Even more important is the presence of Syrian-backed terrorist organizations, including the Palestine National Salvation Front, PLO dissidents who drove Arafat’s forces from Lebanon in 1984 and attempted more than once to assassinate the PLO chairman.

Whether the display of unity is genuine or cosmetic, Arafat willingly paid the price. He is less flexible and more intransigent in his demands. He declared null and void his 1985 accord with King Hussein of Jordan which called for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to negotiate with Israel in the framework of an international conference. He is also expected to cool relations with Egypt.

Arafat still calls for an international conference, with the participation of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. But he demands an independent Palestinian delegation of his own choosing. That would require Israel to recognize the PLO, which it will never do. Actually, the Arafat-Hussein rapprochement has long been a dead issue. “The pact with Jordan has been shelved since February last year,” Hanna Seniora, editor of the East Jerusalem Arabic daily Al-Fajr wrote Tuesday. It was in fact abandoned by Hussein who noted in February 1986 that after a year of negotiations with Arafat, the PLO was an unreliable partner.

Hussein still adheres, at least publicly, to the notion that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But now the PLO appears to be moving to the extreme.

There were hints in Algiers that Arafat is seeking peace with the most dangerous, most wanted Palestinian terrorist, the shadowy Abu Nidal whose hit squads, operating under a variety of flatulent names, are held responsible for a long string of bombings, hijackings and assassinations in Europe and the Middle East. His victims include ranking PLO officials, and Arafat was said to head his death list. He himself has been condemned to death by the PLO.

Now the PLO chief is speaking of intensifying terrorist attacks in Israel and ending them “outside the occupied territories.” This was seen as an oblique invitation to Abu Nidal whose antipathy for Arafat stems from the latter’s alleged “softness” on Israel.

The Abu Nidal group is not represented at the PNC meeting. According to Arab sources, other factions opposed his presence. But should a rapprochement occur, Israel would face a dangerous escalation of terrorist attacks in the months ahead.

RELATIONS IN ISRAEL

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has linked the recent Katyusha rocket attacks on Galilee and the attempted infiltration of Israel Sunday by a three-man terrorist gang to the PNC meeting.

Premier Yitzhak Shamir reacted strongly to the PNC meeting Tuesday. “The worst of our enemies are sitting somewhere discussing how to unite, how to harm us and how to take Jerusalem from us,” Shamir told a Jerusalem audience. “We shall tell them that the people of Israel are united. We are one front. Their conspiracy will fail.” As far as Israel is concerned, there no longer seems any point to work out some complicated formula that would allow for Palestinian representation at peace talks in tandem with Jordan. But Arab observers in East Jerusalem were insisting publicly Tuesday that the developments in Algiers did not necessarily doom the peace process.

But off-the-record comments by Arabs expressed concern that a reunited PLO would adopt a hardline that will scuttle the Middle East peace process. Well informed Arabs admitted that the idea of an international conference suffered a severe blow by Arafat’s demand for separate PLO representation.

But the PNC conference has won wide approval among rank-and-file Arabs in the administered territories. According to one observer, “there is nothing like national unity to cheer up the popular spirits, even if it is doubtful how much real benefit the local population will derive from the closed ranks.”

Arab newspapers in East Jerusalem hailed the show of unity. Al-Fajr carried a front-page cartoon Tuesday showing two Arabs congratulating each other in Algiers. Walls in East Jerusalem were covered with freshly painted slogans acclaiming the newly achieved unity.

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