Palestinian leaders threaten to quit: Yasser Arafat's authority is challenged in an unprecedented PLO split over the Middle-East peace talks

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A RIFT opened yesterday within the Palestine Liberation Organisation when three senior members of the Palestinian peace team challenged the authority of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, by threatening to resign over the way in which the talks are being conducted.

The split came after 21 months of negotiations which in the view of most Palestinians have produced no progress. It also comes amid fears that Israel may be brushing aside the Palestinian problem in its haste to seek a deal with Syria.

Faisal Husseini, the de facto leader in the Israeli-occupied territories, Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, and Saeb Erekat, a leading member of the team, let it be known yesterday that they were prepared to withdraw from the negotiations on the grounds that Mr Arafat had by- passed them during last week's talks with the US and made too many concessions. The three, who left Jerusalem for 'consultations' with Mr Arafat in Tunis last night, were expected to resolve their immediate differences, and withdraw their resignation threats for now.

But while the split may be papered over, the dispute is certain to have damaged the authority of the PLO in the occupied territories. 'From a public relations point of view for us this is a disaster,' said Sari Nusseibeh, a senior adviser to the peace team. 'It will just spread more confusion among Palestinians.' The Palestinian peace delegation is entirely made up of Palestinians from inside the occupied territories but receives its orders from the PLO in Tunis. This arrangement is necessitated by Israel's refusal to talk to the official PLO.

One possible outcome of the dispute is that it might encourage Israel to stop complaining about the 'lack of Palestinian leadership' and talk directly to the PLO in Tunis. Some observers speculated that Mr Arafat may have been deliberately provoking a split in order to push the Israelis in his direction. The local delegation have enjoyed much of the international limelight during the negotiations and Mr Arafat may also have decided to reassert his authority.

The problems caused by the present arrangements have been only too clear in recent days as the 'insiders' have been trying to defend, to an increasingly impatient constituency, policy decisions handed down to them by the 'outsiders' sitting in Tunis.

Before Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, arrived in the Middle East to try to restart the peace talks last week, the PLO's political, financial and military clout had already been dipping to a new low in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. An opinion poll last week indicated 50 per cent of Palestinians wanted an end to the negotiations now, believing that the PLO delegates were selling them out.

Since the rift with moderate Arab countries during the Gulf war, the PLO's funds have all but dried up and the organisation can no longer support Palestinian institutions or give hand-outs to families in need. There is no money for the PLO's armed militias either.

Increasing numbers of Palestinians support Islamic groups which reject the peace process and find financial and spiritual support in the mosques. Last week these Palestinians looked on cynically as Israel bombed the Islamic militants of Hizbollah in south Lebanon - to little disapproval from the world at large.

For the local peace delegation, therefore, Mr Christopher's visit was a new test of their ability to deliver. But it was also a test of their willingness to do Mr Arafat's bidding.

Dissent first opened up when Mr Christopher arrived in Cairo at the beginning of his tour. The PLO, through Egyptian intermediaries, discussed with Mr Christopher new Palestinian proposals, without consulting the local delegation in Jerusalem.

When the delegation examined the proposals they found significant concessions had been made by the PLO in Tunis which they could not defend. In particular, it had apparently agreed that the status of Jerusalem be dicussed only in the final stages of the talks, while the delegation had been insisting it be discussed now. Last Tuesday, when the delegation held talks with Mr Christopher in Jerusalem, they were ordered by Mr Arafat to present the document. They refused, seeking to pressure the PLO in Tunis into making amendments.

On Thursday, during a second meeting with Mr Christopher, the delegation did present the document, which is understood to have been little changed from the original version. After three days of simmering anger at being bulldozed by the PLO in Tunis, the three local leaders leaked to the Arabic press that they might resign. Haidar Abdul Shafi, the head of the negotiating team, who had already boycotted the Christopher visit, confirmed the reports.