News Analysis: Baker Will Find Palestinians More Deeply Divided Than Ever
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News Analysis: Baker Will Find Palestinians More Deeply Divided Than Ever

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Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Israel this week to find a Palestinian community more deeply divided than ever.

The more moderate segment of the community, which generally backs Yasir Arafat’s Al Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is facing a stiff challenge from Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Longstanding differences have been exacerbated by sharp differences between the two groups on how to react to the Labor Party victory in last month’s elections, the accelerated peace process being heralded by Baker and the probability that the United States will soon provide guarantees for billions of dollars worth of loans sought by Israel to aid immigrant absorption.

In recent weeks, the rivalry has been particularly noticeable in the Gaza Strip, where followers of the two groups continued to clash even after a truce was agreed upon by the leadership.

But in the West Bank as well, there was rising tension between the “national” leadership of Faisal Husseini, the unofficial head of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, and the local leadership of the refugee camps, the city streets and the trade unions.

The rising tension was also reflected in last week’s crisis at A-Najah University in Nablus. The army had besieged the university for four days, after learning that wanted armed Palestinians were on campus. The crisis was resolved Friday, as six of the Palestinians agreed to a three-year exile in Jordan.

The internal Palestinian differences are not just their business. They raise questions that become more crucial now that the peace talks are speeding up: Can the Palestinian delegation deliver what it promises? Will the agreements it reaches be honored by the people?

With the euphoria that accompanied the peace conference in Madrid last October long evaporated, the delegates are each determined to prove that they represent their particular constituency the best. While Husseini heads the delegation, his leadership is not strong enough to enforce decisions.


Things would be smoother if PLO headquarters in Tunis actually controlled the Palestinian negotiators, though the Israelis would be the last to admit this.

But paradoxically, the very fact that local Palestinians have been negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people has strengthened their stand vis-a-vis the PLO.

Thus, the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks is caught in a strange situation. On the one hand, it is too weak to reach a consensus or to enforce its will on the people; on the other hand, the people in Tunis are no longer strong enough to make the decisions for them.

The result is a consensus only on the lowest common denominators, such as the demand for a complete halt to the further settlements in the territories.

But this may not be enough for Baker, who will be looking for both flexibility and constructive ideas, when he meets with the Palestinians. State Department officials have already expressed their concern over the internal Palestinian deadlock.

The ones who stand to gain from this relative impotence are the extremists, who oppose any accommodation with Israel. If the extremists win the power struggle, the intifada will flare up again at full scale, and the local Palestinian leadership will be in real trouble.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said that despite Israel’s quest for peace, he would fight the hard-core intifada. The more violent the intifada becomes, the more determined the Labor government will be to quell it.

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