Arafat is still the supreme survivor: Charles Richards examines serious criticisms of the PLO chairman, but concludes that he is the only viable leader

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'ARAFAT'S . . . autocratic behaviour as leader caused mounting fury among the armchair revolutionaries in the Gulf. They tried to rein him in by cutting back the supply of funds . . . Tensions within the leadership had reached such a pitch that an open split seemed probable . . . The Fatah central committee decided to suspend Arafat . . . He was accused by his colleagues of dispensing money 'in an irresponsible manner', of 'failing to carry out collective decisions', of taking 'unauthorised trips'.'*

A familiar lament? It should be. This passage relates to 1966, shortly after the man who was to become known as Mr Palestine had launched his fedayeen on their first attacks on Israel, but before the June 1967 war in which the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, many of them refugees from the 1949 fighting, were brought under the Israeli occupation that lasts to this day.

Accusations of autocratic leadership, of financial mismanagement, of nepotism, of croneyism, of evasiveness, of inconsistency, have dogged Yasser Arafat over nearly 30 years as the acknowledged leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Some of the criticism of his lack of democratic accountability, particularly in the pan-Arab press published in London, is disingenuous. The newspapers' Saudi owners permit criticism only of Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and the PLO. And whatever Mr Arafat's faults, no one can accuse him of the dictatorial practices of a Hafez al- Assad or Saddam Hussein.

The criticism of Mr Arafat's style of leadership may not be new, although many of his associates believe he has worsened. But the circumstances are different. The PLO is being called upon to transform itself from a national liberation movement into a functioning administration. Mr Arafat, in short, is having to turn from a revolutionary leader into a real state-builder. And many doubt that he is up to the task.

The most significant criticism has been from people in the occupied territories. For years, they looked to the leadership outside for guidance. Since they took their fate in their own hands in 1987, with the eruption of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, they have aspired to having a greater say - and more jobs - in the running of the administration of the Palestine-to-be. Yet they feel they are not sufficiently consulted, and key jobs will go to Arafat loyalists in Tunis.

At the weekend, the veteran Palestinian leader in Gaza, Haidar Abdel Shafei, led a delegation from inside and outside the occupied territories to Tunis to present a list of complaints to the PLO chairman. Yesterday, he was fobbed off by Mr Arafat with appointment to an empty-sounding committee to organise a broad dialogue with all Palestinian factions.

'This is a transitional period, a very special transition, of immigration back to the homeland,' said one Arafat adviser, keen to play down the tensions. 'Of course there is a lot of uncertainty. We need a lot of changes. But there is a healthy exchange of opinions. Nothing will happen until we are back (in Palestine).'

Many of the leading Palestinian businessmen and financiers, those with technical skills needed for building the economic foundations of the Palestine-to-be, are aghast at the way that Mr Arafat has installed his placemen at the top of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. Even his chief negotiator, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), went briefly into a huff when he felt Mr Arafat was excluding him from the decision-making process.

Other criticism of Mr Arafat's leadership comes from all the familiar quarters. The Syrians feel his current difficulties are his just desserts for striking a separate deal with Israel. The Israelis express increasing exasperation that he goes back on agreements they felt they had reached with Mr Abbas. The Jordanians are fed up with his characteristic reluctance to be pinned down. 'The time has passed,' an Arab diplomat said, 'for Arafat to seek to play one Arab country against another. He is now negotiating with the Israelis, and he must keep his word.'

Palestinians from outside the PLO mainstream who have long been critical of his policies and leadership methods are not surprised. 'How can they complain about lack of consultations with democratic institutions?' asked one. 'Did Mahmoud Abbas and Abu Ala consult the Palestinian institutions before they negotiated their secret deal with the Israelis in Oslo? Do they represent the Palestinian people?'

There is recognition that Mr Arafat's qualities of evasiveness and cunning, which allowed him and his people to survive so well for so long, may not be the qualities needed now. Mr Arafat has himself accepted this in the past. Some 13 months ago, before the opening of the Oslo channel which led to the 13 September accord, Mr Arafat told me in an interview in his headquarters in Tunis that he might not become the first president of a Palestinian state. 'I don't forget,' he said, 'that Churchill lost the victory. Maybe they will do the same with me.'

Maybe they will. But Mr Arafat's political obituary has been written far too often in the past. He seems to wish more than ever not to repeat Churchill's post-war fall from grace. For all the grumbling, no one can seriously see an alternative to the current leadership. His most trusted lieutenants, Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, are dead, the first assassinated by the Israelis, the second murdered by a renegade bodyguard.

Mr Arafat may not be the best leader to bring the Palestinians nearer their dream of statehood, but he is the only apparent one they have. Barring that occupational hazard of any Middle Eastern leader, the single bullet, he looks set to remain as head of the Palestinian national movement. And even if he does not, such is the Israelis' commitment to their eventual withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank that the peace accords will, in some shape or form, be implemented. With or without Mr Arafat as midwife, a Palestinian homeland will eventually be born.

*Arafat. By Andrew Gowers and Tony Walker. Virgin Books, pounds 6.99. Updated edition to be published on 20 January.

(Photograph omitted)