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PLO caught in a double bind

THE Palestine Liberation Organisation was preparing yesterday to send Nabil Shaath, Yasser Arafat's political adviser and one of the PLO's smoothest negotiators, to Washington for talks with the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Dr Shaath is to press for better protection for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Friday's massacre in Hebron.

However, some officials at PLO headquarters in Tunis said that Dr Shaath's mission might be delayed, so that he would not be seen to be resuming negotiations with Israel. The PLO, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, have broken off direct talks with Israel.

There is widespread anger and gloom among PLO officials here, as well as worry that support for Mr Arafat in the occupied territories - already waning because of the lack of progress on the ground to implement Israel's promised withdrawal - is being eroded fast. The PLO chairman is in an invidious position. He cannot agree to go back to talks with Israel until a decent interval has elapsed. Yet his credibility rests on his ability to get his accord with Israel working. This is possible only through returning to the talks.

The PLO has demanded that Israel go further to disarm militant settlers on the West Bank, and to keep them out of Palestinian population centres. 'They've only offered the partial disarming of five settlers,' said one senior official. 'Can you persuade any ordinary Palestinian that is enough to ensure their security?'

Officials scoffed at Israel's offer of international observers. Rather, they called for 'a temporary international or foreign presence' as stipulated in the annexe of the Oslo accords between the PLO and Israel, without defining its powers.

The Hebron massacre exposed once more the powerlessness of the PLO leadership in exile to protect its people. This was not the first time. After Mr Arafat's forces were pushed out of Beirut, Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps were unprotected and fell prey to the murder squads of the Lebanese Forces militia.

In the absence of their own forces, the PLO is looking to the international community for help. A Russian envoy - the Russians are co-sponsors of the Middle East peace talks - is due in Tunis. So too is the Foreign Minister of Greece, currently President of the European Union. Contacts with the UN Security Council, however, have been frustrated by almost total lack of US interest. 'The Americans are more Israeli than the Israelis,' confided one Arafat aide despondently. 'All they care about is damage-control mechanisms, without changing the substance. But it can never be business as usual after Hebron without recognising the enormity of what happened. Hebron was a catastrophe.'