PLO persuaded to rejoin peace talks: Yasser Arafat in Tunis tells Charles Richards why he is sending a team to the negotiations opening today

THERE was never any doubt that Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and also president of the putative state of Palestine, would have to send his negotiating team back to the peace talks that start today in Washington.

But he had to fight to persuade them to go. The PLO executive committee met late on Sunday to debate whether or not to confirm the decision to attend by the five Arab parties - Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinians. They decided to send a reduced delegation, led as usual by the reluctant Haidar Abdel-Shafi. What else could they do?

Mr Arafat made a brave face of expressing the purposelessness of their task. 'We have a right to ask: why should we go?' he declared to a group of European journalists in Tunis. 'The estimated year for the negotiations has elapsed. Nothing has been achieved. Nothing during the last 13, 14 months. Even minus. Mr Rabin is following the same policy as (the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak) Shamir in these negotiations.'

But the Palestinians could not afford to be seen as the obstacle to progress, whatever they might have felt about the inadequacy of Israeli proposals for an interim arrangement presented at the last round of talks. These would cede only circumscribed control over limited areas of the occupied West Bank to Palestinian control during the transitional period.

Then there is the Clinton factor. The Palestinians have to be flexible, so as not to damage their image before Bill Clinton takes office on 20 January.

Mr Arafat was cautious about prospects under Mr Clinton, and his pre-election statements about moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 'We hope it is only a campaign promise. Because no Palestinian, no Arab, no Muslim, no Christian will accept what has been mentioned concerning Jerusalem.' Mr Arafat refused to acknowledge the generally-held view that the team of George Bush and James Baker had been the driving force for pushing the Israelis to the negotiating table. Yet the Palestinians hope for a more active US mediator to chivvy the talks along.

Nor would Mr Arafat concede that the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister of Israel had changed the Israeli approach to the talks. Mr Arafat was adamant: Mr Rabin would still not accept that UN Security Council Resolution 242, outlawing the acquisition of territory by force, and the call for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war, applied to the West Bank. The issue of 242 was galling, confirmation that the Palestinians were being treated differently from other parties to the talks. Israel accepts 242 as the basis for talks with Jordan and Syria. Why not for the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

The prospects of Jordan or Syria making separate deals with Israel would weaken the joint Arab, and therefore Palestinian, negotiating position. This would add, Mr Arafat thought, to the tragedy of the Palestinians. But 'if it will happen, we will continue'.

Frustration over the lack of progress in the talks has come from Mr Arafat's own mainstream Fatah organisation. Most Palestinians share the same broad strategic aspirations: the end of the Israeli occupation and the eventual granting of the prerogative to the Palestinians to determine how they should run their own affairs, whether in an independent state, or in some other arrangement with Jordan.

Differences are mainly in tactics. It is a commonplace to portray as more moderate the Palestinian negotiating delegation drawn from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the harder line taken by the PLO leadership outside. Those inside were said to be keen to reach an interim agreement on self-government that would ease or end the Israeli occupation. Five years of intifada have given pride to the national movement, but has brought great suffering in terms of deaths, injuries, poverty and broken families.

Yet the distinction between inside and outside is blurred. Those on the West Bank are often quite extreme, or subject to pressure from more extreme elements. These include Hamas, which rejects the settlement proposed since 1988 by the PLO leadership of establishing a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. Hamas instead calls for the liberation from Jewish control of the whole of the historic land of Palestine.

And it was Mr Arafat, and PLO officials such as Nabil Shaath, who had to insist to Dr Abdel-Shafi and his fellow delegate Saeb Erakat that the Palestinians could not afford to boycott the current round of talks.

The Israelis have never ceased their search for an alternative Palestinian leadership to the PLO. First, they sought more 'acceptable' leaders inside the occupied territories. Then, having acknowledged the inevitability of PLO association with the talks, they have found ways of not dealing with Mr Arafat. But the barriers are being eroded. The Israeli law banning contacts with the PLO is being rescinded. Messages between Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin ping-pong through the press. Israeli politicians have met senior PLO figures.

Mr Arafat accepts that he may not become president of the state of Palestine. 'I don't forget that Churchill lost the victory. Maybe they will do the same with me.'

But even his opponents within the PLO accept that he alone is a national symbol. The Israeli government may not like him, but he still represents the hopes and aspirations of the people.

Yet the pragmatists seek encouragement. Were Britain to lift its ban on PLO meetings - or the United States to resume its dialogue with the PLO - it would have enormous symbolic impact in an area where symbols mean so much. And it would provide the pragmatists with evidence that their approach was working.

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