JERUSALEM (Sep. 6)
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat has succeeded in lining up at least tepid support for a proposed peace agreement with Israel from virtually all the Arab leaders in the Middle East.
What remains for him now is to secure the backing of those within his own ranks.
Arafat left Damascus on Monday with only a qualified statement of support for the proposed agreement from Syrian President Hafez Assad.
After more than six hours of meetings with Arafat, Assad would only say that he would back the agreement with Israel if the Palestinian people gave it their support.
Assad’s hedged endorsement, which was accompanied by a protest that the agreement with Israel was “not coordinated with the Arab brethren,” was somewhat less than what Arafat had hoped for.
But it nonetheless enabled him to move on to the next challenge — gaining the support of the PLO Executive Committee, which was scheduled to meet later this week.
The announcement of Assad’s lukewarm support followed a more wholehearted endorsement of the plan by King Hussein of Jordan, who praised Israeli and PLO leaders in a statement Saturday.
The Lebanese government, on the other hand, which is heavily influenced by Syria, did not embrace the accord. Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri said Saturday that the Palestinians had weakened their own cause by not consulting with Syria or Lebanon before reaching the accord.
The proposed Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which was endorsed last week by Israel’s Cabinet, calls for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho as a first step toward extending Palestinian authority to the administered territories.
SUPPORT FROM PERSIAN GULF STATES
Arafat also got needed support Monday when the six Persian Gulf states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council gave their support to the draft agreement with Israel.
But the council’s statement made no mention of any forthcoming financial support that would be crucial to prop up Palestinian self-rule in the territories.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states withdrew their funding of the PLO after Arafat backed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Experts believe that the PLO’s dire financial situation since then substantially weakened Arafat and led to his seeking the current proposed accord with Israel.
The agreement now has the backing of six Arab states in addition to those in the Persian Gulf region: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
The Arab nations were encouraged to support the proposed pact in a letter sent by President Clinton to nine Arab heads of state last Friday. The letters, which sent a clear message that the United States was firmly backing the process, were the first action taken by Clinton since the plan was announced last week.
The proposed peace plan also won the support of the Communist People’s Party in the territories, which stated Monday that the plan nonetheless needed to be approved by the PLO’s Executive Committee and by an all-Arab summit.
Over the weekend, Arafat won the support of the 16-member council of Fatah, the mainstream and most moderate group within the PLO.
But the task of winning the full backing of the PLO remains daunting. At least four members of the council rejected Arafat’s call for support — and he is certain to encounter even harsher opposition when he seeks the approval of the 18-member PLO Executive Committee.
In an indication of some of the hurdles still facing Arafat, none of the leaders of militant Palestinian groups based in Damascus was willing to meet with Arafat while he was there.
POPULAR FRONT CALLS FOR NEW PLO LEADERSHIP
Another PLO constituent group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, called Monday for a new PLO leadership to be elected by a special conference of representatives from all Palestinian factions.
And in Tunis on Monday, a senior member of the Popular Front said the radical group would ignore any order from Arafat banning attacks on Israelis during the period of self-rule.
Despite these protests from extremists within the PLO — and from Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah — optimism ran high in Israel that the agreement will soon be signed in Washington.
Israeli officials were also hopeful of signing a mutual recognition pact with the PLO — another watershed event that would have been unthinkable until a week ago.
Negotiations on that front continued in Paris over the weekend, where Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with his Norwegian counterpart, Johan Jorgen Holst. The Norwegian diplomat has been instrumental in the secret talks carried out between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the last several months.
The two diplomats focused on securing economic support for the proposed plan.
The previous day, Peres met with French President Francois Mitterrand, who praised Peres for his “great intellectual and political courage.” The French president also said he would view “very positively” any request for assistance to meet Palestinian needs for self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.
The Israeli government’s optimism was reflected in remarks Friday by Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who said in Washington that the historic breakthrough with the Palestinians may lead to similar advances in negotiations with the Syrians.
Rabinovich, who is also chief negotiator for Israel’s bilateral talks with the Syrians, said that Israeli and Syrian negotiators have overcome some longstanding differences during the current round of peace talks being held in Washington.
“Several of the sticking points of previous rounds have been resolved this week,” Rabinovich said, addressing reporters at the National Press Club on Friday.
But, he added, although progress had oc- curred, the two sides “were not on the verge of concluding that agreement.”
The Israeli-Syrian talks have stalled for months over definitions of withdrawal and peace. Israel is waiting for Syria to define what it means by “full peace,” and Syria is waiting for Israel to spell out its plans regarding withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Rabinovich welcomed the progress that had been made on other former problem areas of the draft document.
“I’m delighted that this week, when everybody is in a holding pattern,” he said, that both the Syrians and Israelis “found the presence of mind and the courage needed in order to make progress, albeit limited.”
Progress is also expected on the Israeli-Jordanian track when talks resume in Washington on Tuesday.
(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents Deborah Kalb in Washington and Lisa Glaser and Michel Di Paz in Paris.)