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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Palestinian opposition groups appear to unite behind Arafat

JERUSALEM, March 4 (JTA) — Some militant Palestinian groups appear to be coalescing behind the person who has led the Palestinians on a path of peace with Israel. At the initiative of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, more than 100 representatives of various Palestinian groups, including several that have been vehemently opposed to the peace process, gathered in the West Bank town of Nablus last week for the first session of what they called a national Palestinian dialogue. Except for the Islamic Jihad, all major opposition bodies were present. Among those attending were representatives of Palestine Liberation Organization factions that make up the so-called Rejectionist Front because of their staunch opposition to the peace process. Those organizations, such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose headquarters are in Damascus, have long been among Arafat’s most strident opponents. Representatives of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas group, which is not part of the PLO, also were in attendance. It was the first time since Arafat shook the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993 that Palestinian groups, which split over the Israeli-Palestinian accords, came together for a day of discussion. The dialogue comes as Israel and the Palestinians prepare to embark in earnest on their final-status talks, which will determine the fate of Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian sovereignty. Discussing strategy for the final- status talks was billed as one of the dialogue’s aims. The initiative appeared to give a boost to Arafat’s political stature as well as to his approach to negotiations with Israel. The Feb. 27 meeting came a day after Israel announced its decision to go ahead with construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem — a move that threatened to escalate Israeli- Palestinian tensions. The Nablus gathering appeared to give endorsement to Arafat’s calls for non-violent protest. But the dialogue actually had been in the works for nearly a year. The initiative for the dialogue was made shortly after the Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombings last February and March in Israel, when Arafat’s security services launched a crackdown on Hamas terrorists operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat had a vested interest in showing that he was seeking to build a Palestinian consensus for the peace process. Plans for the dialogue received a boost after September’s violence in the self-rule areas that erupted after Israel opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in the Old City. After three days of clashes, during which Palestinian police opened fired on Israeli soldiers, and 76 Israelis and Palestinians were killed, Arafat’s stand in the self-rule areas was strengthened considerably. He could afford courting his opposition. “Arafat’s rule is secure without the consent of the opposition,” said a senior Israeli intelligence source. “But it is important for him to show both locally and outwardly that Palestinians enjoy political pluralism, and that it is not a one-man show.” “In the long power struggle between Arafat and his rivals, the rivals realized that Arafat has the upper hand,” the source added. “For the opposition, taking part in the national dialogue was a matter of to be or not to be.” So, they chose to be, but on Arafat’s terms. More than a year after such groups boycotted the first Palestinian elections — in which a Palestinian legislative body was selected and Arafat was chosen as head of the Palestinian Authority — the opposition appears to consider the dialogue its only chance to be part of the Palestinian establishment. The opposition’s participation lent recognition to Arafat’s leadership and to the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. While none of the opposition groups has changed its views toward Israel or the peace process, they at least seemed prepared to participate in Palestinian politics within the context of the Palestinian Authority. Future sessions of the dialogue are expected to discuss areas such as allocating Palestinian Cabinet seats to opposition groups and consulting them on national tactics, such as when to call strikes. The dialogue was carefully planned by Arafat and his supporters. Salim al-Zanoun, chairman of the Palestine National Council, opened the session, and was followed by Arafat. After his introductory remarks, Arafat politely asked the media to leave the conference hall. “I came to work and not to chat,” Arafat said. Few details emerged about the substance of the deliberations, but the very gathering of the disparate Palestinian groups was in itself significant. The Palestinian media, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, predictably described the meeting as a victory for Arafat. At the same time, Israel appeared to welcome the initiative. Internal rifts in the Palestinian camp have never worked to Israel’s benefit. Competing factions often have turned to terrorism in an effort to advance their respective goals. Mohammad Dahlan, head of the Palestinian Security Service in Gaza, declared this week that there would be no Palestinian terrorism “within the next year.” This was one indication that the show of Palestinian unity at the dialogue could benefit Israel, at least in terms of daily security. Dahlan’s statement to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv was viewed in Israel more as a declaration that the Palestinian Authority was in control of the situation than a guarantee that there would be no more terrorism — or confrontations between Palestinian police and the Israel Defense Force. “If Palestinian policemen shoot at Israeli soldiers, Dahlan will say that he stood by his words,” said the senior intelligence source. “This is war, not terrorism.”