News Analysis: Despite Its Support for Iraq, PLO May Survive Gulf War Intact

The Palestine Liberation Organization, long reviled by Israeli officials as a terrorist group but revered by Palestinians as their beacon of hope for statehood, may emerge from the Persian Gulf war relatively unscathed, some Middle East analysts and peace activists say.

Despite PLO leader Yasir Arafat’s support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the widespread anger it engendered among Arab leaders opposing Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, the PLO continues to remain the one organization capable of negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians, analysts say.

And while Arafat may be replaced in an attempt to appease Arab anger with his stance, it remains unlikely the PLO will collapse or be totally estranged from postwar peace negotiations.

Nor does the antagonism now shown toward Arafat mean the Gulf states, along with Egypt and Syria, have ceased to support the creation of a Palestinian state, said Don Peretz, a political science professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and author of a book about the intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

“The antagonism is mainly due to the position taken by the (PLO) leadership, but due to the basic program of the PLO for a Palestinian state, I’m inclined to think Arab countries will continue their support,” said Peretz.

Some analysts say the most likely postwar scenario is one in which the 61-year-old Arafat steps down and is replaced by one of the younger members of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s quasi-legislative body. Such a move would make it easier for Arab nations to again throw their support behind the PLO.

‘CHOICES ARE THE PLO OR HAMAS’

Analysts say a change in leadership would not harm the ability of the organization to function effectively. They point out that the PLO is not a monolithic structure, but an umbrella group encompassing everything from terrorist cells to student associations, insurance programs and investment portfolios.

Already, some European nations — notably France and Germany — seem to be acknowledging the necessity of including the PLO in any postwar discussion of the Palestinian issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir maintains the PLO is finished as a negotiating partner, and a number of American Jewish organizational leaders have echoed that view.

But peace activists say that if Shamir is serious about reaching a settlement with the 1.75 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he will have to deal with the PLO sooner or later.

“The question is, can the other side deliver?” said Drora Kass, an Israeli-born peace activist who is director of the U.S. office of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.

“We might want to fantasize that the Palestinians may pick some representative who we love, who is just like us, but that’s not going to happen,” she said. “Realistically, our choices are the PLO or Hamas.”

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group opposed to a settlement with Israel, controls almost half the population in the Gaza Strip and is vying for leadership in the West Bank.

The less support Arab and European countries give to the PLO, the more likely groups such as Hamas will increase their power base, said Adam Garfinkle, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

That would further fragment the Palestinians and make negotiations with Israel virtually impossible, he said.

ARAFAT IS ‘MR. PALESTINE’

Right now, Arafat remains the only Palestinian leader who can deliver on a promise, said Garfinkle. But if Arafat’s support dwindles beyond recovery, it will be years before any person can again speak for all the Palestinians.

“He is Mr. Palestine, and nobody else can do that,” said Garfinkle.

Some analysts say Arafat’s decision to embrace Hussein was less an ideological choice then a bad political move aimed at raising the profile of the Palestinian problem. Arafat may also have been trying to appease the more radical factions in the PLO that felt it was no longer possible to have Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

A peace plan presented by Israel in May 1989 included holding elections to appoint Palestinian representatives, who would then negotiate limited autonomy for the administered territories. The plan collapsed a year later when Shamir rejected a U.S. proposal to hold preliminary negotiations in Cairo on the modalities of the elections.

The theory behind the Israeli peace plan, which Shamir maintains is still alive, is to let the Palestinians in the territories speak for themselves, instead of having their future decided by outside forces, such as the PLO.

But Mitchell Cohen, a political science professor at City University of New York, said Israeli policy in the territories has thwarted an indigenous Palestinian leadership from surfacing.

Activities such as the recent detention of Bir Zeit University Professor Sari Nusseibeh discourage the development of an indigenous, West Bank leadership, making the PLO all the more important, said Cohen, who is also an editor of the left-wing journal Dissent.

‘PLO HAS DAMAGED ITS CREDIBILITY’

In the end, the PLO’s future will likely be determined by the U.S. government, which can either embrace the PLO as the sole negotiating voice of the Palestinians or demand a different partner in peace talks with Israel.

The U.S. government, which broke off talks with the PLO last summer after a PLO faction attempted to launch a terrorist attack on Tel Aviv beaches, can play an important role in pressing the Israeli government to move on the Palestinian issue, analysts say.

Still, the final vote is up to the Israelis, who are now more wary about sitting down with the same Palestinians who cheered while Iraqi missiles smashed into Tel Aviv.

“I certainly think the PLO has damaged its credibility enormously with Gulf states and the Western world,” said Jonathan Jacoby, executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “But I think we should keep in mind that it has always been and continues to be an extremely powerful symbol for the Palestinians.”

He added, “Those who have a problem with the PLO are likely to have many of the same problems with its successor.”

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