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News Analysis: PLO Will Have Big Off-stage Role at Mideast Peace Talks in Madrid

Israel has succeeded in denying the Palestine Liberation Organization an official role at the Middle East peace conference opening in Madrid next week.

But there are signs that the PLO will have a strong off-stage presence.

Moreover, by successfully excluding the PLO as a negotiating partner, Israel may have elevated the status of the local intifada leadership, which it has been trying to subdue for nearly four years.

The Palestinian negotiating team, selected, at Israel’s insistence, exclusively from residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, represents the intellectual, ideological and political underpinnings of the uprising.

Even more so does the six-member advisory council, headed by Faisal Husseini of East Jerusalem, which will go to Madrid to serve as a liaison between the negotiating team and the PLO.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has already expressed annoyance with the United States for that.

Shamir told reporters Monday he had not known that the Americans would issue invitations to the Madrid conference to Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and other Palestinian leaders whom Israel disqualified as negotiating partners.

The local Palestinian leaders still acknowledge the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but that incantation is now often accompanied by a wink.

NOT BEHOLDEN TO ARAFAT

Yasir Arafat, to be sure, is undergoing rehabilitation in the Arab world since falling into disrepute for his support of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

He was received warmly in Damascus this week after years of being persona non grata in Syria. He has also patched up differences with King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

But the PLO leader no longer commands unquestioned obedience from his Palestinian constituency. The nationalists and activists in the territories possess greater legitimacy as representatives of the Palestinian population under Israeli rule than Arafat’s PLO in far-off Tunis.

Israeli policy-makers, no less than Arafat, may be affected by the new dynamics emerging from the peace process.

The Israelis boast that they won every point in their long negotiations with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker over the composition of the Palestinian delegation.

They excluded residents of East Jerusalem and “the Palestinian diaspora,” as well as anyone with known PLO connections.

The United States assured Israel it would not have to talk to anyone it found unacceptable.

Without showing them an official list, the United States assured Israel that the Palestinian team meets its criteria.

Yet if the list of names released to the media Tuesday is correct, Israel’s Palestinian partners at the peace talk are at least unofficially representatives of the PLO.

Arafat boasted in Cairo this week that he appointed Faisal Husseini as his personal representative in the preparatory talks with Secretary Baker and that the East Jerusalem activist was, in all but name, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team.

3 LAYERS OF REPRESENTATION

If that is true, the official chairman of the delegation, Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, a 72-year-old physician from the Gaza Strip, is a figurehead. But Shafi told Israel Radio on Monday that if necessary, he and his colleagues were prepared to declare openly that they are PLO members.

Since the PLO intends to send its own team of observers to Madrid, it will have three layers of representation there, the innermost of which will be sitting face to face with the Israelis.

But that does not necessarily translate into a pervasive PLO influence. Husseini and his colleagues have constantly consulted with Tunis, but they have not always agreed to its decrees.

The very fact that the PLO will not participate in the peace conference officially is due as much to the emerging power of the local Palestinian leadership as to Israel’s objections.

The local leaders are impatient to get the political process started, regardless of formalities. They are aiming for its substance: the right of Palestinian self-determination.

Husseini could not have operated independently of the PLO had he not been backed by a cadre of young Palestinian activists who enjoy considerable influence in the Palestinian “street.”

Many, like himself, are former inmates of Israeli prisons. A large number are professors at the Arab universities in the territories or are trade union leaders.

The list of Palestinian delegates reveals strong representation from Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, which the Israeli authorities have kept closed since the early days of the intifada because it was a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism.

In short, the clandestine command of the intifada has emerged from the closet and achieved the status of legitimate negotiating partners.

PALESTINIANS ARE OPTIMISTIC

Small wonder, then, that in contrast to Israeli misgivings, a wave of optimism has swept the Palestinian political community since the Madrid conference was announced last Friday.

For the first time since Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip 24 years ago, the Palestinians have their own representatives enjoying de facto immunity from Israeli power.

Husseini and his compatriots no longer need fear Israeli reprisals. Having conferred repeatedly with Baker, they are free under the American umbrella to roam the world, attend nationalist forums, such as the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers, and send delegates to meet the Israelis as equals.

By accepting the U.S.-Soviet invitation to the peace conference, the Shamir government essentially handed the Palestinians their first slice of autonomy.

And the Palestinians going to Madrid hope for much more. They believe the conference bodes well for them, especially as they have little to lose and much to gain.

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