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PLO Leadership Seen in Disarray Amid Calls for Arafat’s Ouster

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With the peace talks scheduled to reconvene in Washington next week, there are numerous indications that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s top leadership is in disarray.

Two top PLO officials have resigned their posts this month, and there have been numerous calls from the organization’s leadership for Yasir Arafat to resign as chairman or share his decision-making powers.

A report of the latest call for Arafat’s ouster was broadcast Monday on Radio Monte Carlo, a usually reliable station specializing in Arab affairs.

According to the report, Faisal Husseini, the chief Palestinian negotiator for the peace talks, has challenged Arafat’s leadership and called for a new organizing body to prevent the downfall of the PLO. Husseini reportedly made the statement earlier this week in the West Bank town of Hebron.

But senior members of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks denied the report Tuesday.

Husseini is presently out of the country, but Saeb Erekat, his close associate and a delegate to the peace talks himself, said it was ridiculous to attribute such a statement to Husseini.

While that report has been denied, recent events give credence to reports that the PLO leadership is deeply split.

Two leading members of the PLO executive committee — Mahmoud Darwish, a poet and close adviser to Arafat, and Shafik al-Hout, the PLO’s longtime representative in Lebanon — have resigned in protest over what they perceive as Arafat’s “moderate” policy toward Israel.

Lt. Col. Munir Maqdah, commander in Lebanon of a military branch of the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement, said Monday that Arafat should step down. Maqdah reportedly was responding to the grievances of his fighters, who have been disarmed and remain unpaid.

And on Tuesday, Khaled al-Hassan, one of Fatah’s founders, called on Arafat to share his broad powers and form a collective PLO command.

A SERIOUS FINANCIAL CRISIS

There are a number of reasons for the discontent within the top PLO leadership.

First, there is Arafat’s leadership style, which has been seen as dictatorial. Hassan has not been alone in seeking Arafat to share his power.

Another cause of the rift is the deep financial trouble facing the PLO. The Persian Gulf states cut off their aid to the PLO in 1991 because of Palestinian support for Iraq during the Gulf war.

The PLO has had to adopt strict austerity measures to stave off bankruptcy. The measures have affected refugees, PLO fighters and the families of Palestinians killed in fighting, who in the past received compensation.

Salaries of top PLO officials have not been paid since June, and newspapers in the administered territories have been forced to suspend operations.

To head off financial collapse, the PLO reportedly has begun selling its real estate holdings throughout the world.

A third reason for the internal discord is a PLO-drafted proposal to reach a settlement with Israel in the peace talks.

The proposal — which calls for Israel to withdraw first from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho while the rest of the territories remain under interim Palestinian self-government — is viewed by many as making far too many concessions to Israel.

Three top Palestinian negotiators — Husseini, Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi — resigned earlier this month over the proposal.

They subsequently were made members of the PLO steering committee overseeing the peace talks amid promises that they would be consulted before any new initiatives were taken with Israel.

Despite the challenges to his leadership, Arafat reportedly maintains a comfortable majority of supporters on the PLO executive committee. But in order to shore up his support in the Arab world generally, Arafat went to Amman on Monday to pay a call on King Hussein.

Jordanian leaders reportedly share the Palestinians’ ire over not being consulted during the drafting of the PLO peace proposal.

PLO spokesman Yasir Abed-Rabbo announced meanwhile that the executive committee will meet with Palestinian negotiators in Tunis at the end of the week to discuss the internal differences.

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