Arafat faces 'very frank' criticism: PLO's leadership, peace policy and finances challenged in Tunis

THE CHAIRMAN of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, faced stormy criticism of his leadership, his peace policy and his financial management at a meeting of the PLO executive committee in Tunis. PLO officials described the first session, which lasted until the early hours yesterday, as 'very frank'.

Shortly before the meeting began, Taysir Khaled, a representative of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said he would demand Mr Arafat's resignation. But then, he would. The DFLP remains a splinter group which excels at cogent Marxist self- analysis, but whose political weight is dwarfed by Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement.

At issue are both Mr Arafat's specific proposals to advance the Middle East peace process, and the fact that he has presented them to the Israelis without properly consulting the Palestinian negotiators to the peace talks, who come from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, or the PLO executive committee. Peace talks are due to resume in Washington on Tuesday.

A proposal gaining greater circulation is the establishment of an interim Palestinian state in only part of the occupied territories, pending a final settlement. This would be in Gaza, and Jericho on the West Bank. Arafat loyalists were quick to play down the row. They emphasised the importance of the Jericho-Gaza proposal.

'This is the most serious solution which can be implemented before the end of 1993. This interim government's most important task must be the preparation of all the infrastructure needed for an independent Palestinian state, therefore, though it will be chaired by President Yasser Arafat, it must be composed essentially by technocrats and nationalist personalities from both inside and outside (the occupied territories),' says Bassam Abu Sharif, a political adviser to Mr Arafat and the man often used to fly a kite for the chairman.

No one in Tunis dismisses the importance of the opponents to the US-initiated direct peace talks in Washington and the signing of a first agreement between Israel and the PLO. 'It's not a storm in a tea cup, it's a real typhoon, for we are on the eve of a historic moment which is going to change the life of millions of people in the region, particularly affecting the Palestinians and the Israelis,' says Mr Sharif. 'This means many people will have to go, for young and new blood to be injected. And of course, many old leaders in the region are not that happy about the prospect and the real possibilities of the coming into life of a Palestinian state.'

At the same time, Mr Sharif plays down the resignation of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish from the executive committee and the suspension from membership of Shafiq al- Hut, the PLO's representative in Lebanon.

Vigorous protests about financial mismanagement by the leadership are also dismissed by independent observers in Tunis as part of the earthquake which will shake the PLO as soon as it signs any agreement with Israel.

'The financial squeeze by our Arab donors, like the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, started months before the Gulf war. But now that we are reaching an agreement with the Israelis, and we have urged our cadres to drastically cut their expenses and limit their privileges, suddenly we hear talk about financial mismanagement and even corruption,' one PLO executive explained bitterly.

At stake is not only the PLO's tentacular organisation but most importantly its military wing, with its generals, colonels, pilots, marines and soldiers scattered in various Arab countries, from Algeria to Yemen.

Leading Israeli newspapers reported that the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, secretly met a top PLO official to forge a Palestinian self-rule deal. One newspaper identified the Palestinian as Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen). Another newspaper said it was Mr Arafat's spokesman, Yasser Abed Rabbo.