Can Arafat Survive His Latest Blunder?

One evening in 1985 the late PLO military commander Khalil al-Wazir was asked what the Palestine Liberation Organization had ever really done for its people. Normally mild-mannered, he responded with a tirade. "You don't know what it was like to live with the Egyptian boot on the back of your neck," he said. He talked about prisons in Syria, slaughter in Jordan, arid exile in the gulf. Not once did he mention Israel. What the PLO had done, said al-Wazir, was take the Palestinian movement away from Arab leaders who had exploited it for their own ends. The PLO had established its independence, nothing less.

But in the years since, it has done little more. PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat has tried concessions: in 1988 he accepted U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, recognizing Israel's right to live within secure borders. In language tailored by American officials, he renounced terrorism. But all he got was a low-level dialogue with Washington. It collapsed when he refused to denounce an abortive raid on an Israeli beach by one of the more radical PLO factions. A leading moderate in the organization says, "All his decisions proved to be wrong."

As Eastern Europe was shedding its dictators, Arafat embraced them. He was a conspicuous guest at the last Party Congress of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. He sent a message congratulating China's leadership after Tiananmen Square. Worst of all, he offered rhetorical support for Saddam Hussein right through the Iraqi tyrant's miserable defeat, then refused to acknowledge the results. When one of Arafat's top aides told friends last week that Saddam actually won because he didn't lose all his Army, a stunned Palestinian intellectual concluded, "If he's pretending, it's a calamity. If he's not, it's even more of a calamity."

In fact, says a Palestinian realist, "I don't think we'll face a bigger crisis than this." Israel still flatly refuses to talk with the PLO. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, vital donors to the PLO, are furious with Arafat for supporting Saddam. By Arafat's own count, the organization lost $100 million worth of contributions from the gulf this year. Even among Saddam's backers his credibility is low. "All the PLO leadership said they would be in the trenches with the Iraqis," says one Jordanian official. "Nobody showed up."

For the moment, the PLO chairman is surviving by default. But while lip service to PLO unity continues, intrigues are proliferating even among senior members of the organization. Top PLO officials admit privately that they are considering new leadership possibilities. In a more sinister vein, some PLO moderates are worried about attacks by radical groups inside and outside the organization. One moderate suggested the United States make extradition of Palestinian terrorists from Baghdad one of its conditions for a cease-fire. "Why not sweep them clean, all of them?" he asked.

Such disarray puts even the organization's cherished independence at risk. Syrian President Hafez Assad has long wanted to dominate the Palestinian movement. Ideologically, he considers Palestine, like Lebanon, a part of Greater Syria. Personally, his hatred of Arafat is legendary. In 1983 Assad backed a bloody rebellion against the PLO chairman. It failed, but its leaders have lingered in Damascus since. Now Assad is pushing them back onto center stage. When the foreign ministers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia visited Damascus earlier this month, they pointedly met with Assad's candidates for PLO leadership.

The Syrian-backed Palestinians have always lacked money. If their relations with the gulf states improve, they could get the cash Arafat is now denied. But many Kuwaitis and Saudis would like the Palestinians written off altogether. Asked about support for the PLO in the name of Pan-Arabism, a U.S.-educated Kuwaiti journalist says bluntly, "This is history."

Such pressures expose the essential irony of Arafat's position and the PLO's. While demanding freedom of action, the organization can hardly survive on its own. Already, PLO officials have sent feelers to Jordan's King Hussein about creating a joint delegation to negotiate with Israel. Such formulas have failed before, amid Jordanian complaints that Arafat reneged on commitments. Since 1988 the king has held that if the PLO is the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," it must take responsibility for its actions. That is one concession Arafat still refuses to make.