A stone's throw from peace: Yasser Arafat needs Arab backing for the Gaza-Jericho deal to succeed, argues Conor Cruise O'Brien

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FOR THE government of Israel to offer to the Palestinian leaders a transfer of authority over Gaza and Jericho is both shrewd and courageous. For the Palestinian leaders to accept the Israeli offer would be even more courageous, and maybe not quite so shrewd, unless Arab states come to their aid.

Haim Ramon, the Israeli health minister, said that the accord 'would be between Israel and all Palestinians who support peace, oppose terror and recognise Israel's right to exist'. How many such Palestinians are there?

It is being widely suggested, quite surprisingly, that the PLO belongs, or will shortly belong, in the category of Palestinians approved by Haim Ramon. What is clear is that Yasser Arafat and his immediate entourage are preparing for such a deal. But the PLO is a loose coalition, and it is already clear that some at least of its members are far from ready to follow Arafat's lead. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has already threatened to kill Arafat if such a deal is concluded, and the PFLP is part of the PLO. Other rejectionist elements within the PLO will certainly follow suit.

Arafat, who has never lacked physical courage, is prepared to defy the rejectionists. The first real test for him will come within Fatah, the largest group within the PLO, and the only one that accepts him as leader, and not just as chairman of a coalition of independent groups. Fatah has long since broken with the rejectionists, through its acceptance in principle of the idea of a 'mini-state', as an interim stage on the way to the recovery of all of Palestine. No doubt the 'interim' notion is being pressed by Arafat's friends in the inter-Arab dialogue over Gaza/Jericho. But the mini-state Arafat and his friends have been demanding is much more than what is now on offer, and being favourably considered by Arafat.

The mini-state that has been Arafat's objective until now consisted of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. It was assumed that these areas would constitute a state, and would be free from Israeli troops and Jewish settlements. To accept much less than this - just limited autonomy for the great Gaza slum, plus the little town of Jericho - seems quite a hazardous step for a Palestinian leader.

It also seems at present that Israel will maintain a limited military presence in Gaza under the accord. This (if held to) may prove the condition that will wreck the whole deal. Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO's political department (and therefore not a rejectionist in principle), said over the weekend: 'We are seriously considering suspending the talks because Israel does not intend to withdraw one inch from the territories.'

Kaddoumi is likely to find more support for that position as the debate in Israeli itself develops. The Rabin government, in arguing for the proposed accord, is bound to emphasise the very factors that are distasteful to the Arabs: no Palestinian state, maintenance of a military presence in Gaza, no preparations for withdrawal of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Every Israeli governmental statement in this area will be political ammunition for Arafat's Arab opponents.

Similarly, Arafat's own more gung-ho statements are ammunition for Rabin's Jewish opponents. When Arafat talks of bringing the Palestine Liberation Army into Gaza, he encourages the idea that the deal over Gaza is the small beginning of an ultimate takeover of all Palestine. This is, of course, precisely the message he intends for the ears of Arabs. But the fact that it also reaches the ears of Jews makes the deal increasingly precarious on that side.

The accord will be difficult to deliver, both on the Arab and on the Israeli side. But the danger on the Arab side is the greater. I believe that unless Arafat soon receives substantial support from Arab countries his Palestinian support will crumble, and he will have to withdraw from the proposed deal, putting the blame on Israeli intransigence, and alleged failure to deliver on alleged verbal promises.

The only thing that can save the deal would be strong backing from three Arab states: Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. As it happens, Arafat offended all three by his foolishly public support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war. But the rulers of all three countries are rational people, and rational rulers overlook past offences when it is to their present advantage to do so. Egypt is likely to help Arafat, verbally, in his current task, when suitably urged by the Americans to do so. But Syrian support is far more important and I don't believe Arafat would have gone as far as he has on this perilous course, unless he felt he had backing from Hafiz al-Assad.

Assad, if he chooses, can throw Arafat some much-needed support from the quite large Syrian-influenced elements within the PLO. Syria, through its control over Lebanon and influence over Jordan and through the respect which Syria itself inspires in the Arab world generally, can save Arafat from being isolated in the region, both while the deal is being worked out, and after it is consummated.

Finally, Assad can help Arafat to do something he is incapable of doing on his own: Assad, and only Assad, can secure the maintenance of public order in the crowded and turbulent Gaza Strip under the new authority. He can do this with perfect propriety by lending Arafat, at his request, some of the Palestinian troop formations that already exist under Syrian control and trained, armed, equipped and paid by Syria. These would control Gaza, Syrian-style, aided by the general lack of international curiosity that surrounds Syrian repression, as distinct from the considerably milder Israeli efforts in that domain.

Syria has adequate motives for coming to Arafat's rescue. Syria hopes to recover all of the Golan, and Israel has cautiously encouraged these hopes. If Arafat, with Syria's backing, gets his deal over Gaza/Jericho, Syria will expect to get Arafat's blessing for its own deal over the Golan. Assad can then claim that far from having done a separate deal at the expense of the Palestinians (as Syria had accused Sadat of doing), Assad has recovered the Golan with the full approval of 'the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people', the title conferred on the PLO at the Arab summit in Rabat in October 1974. And for Syria, the Arafat-led faction of the PLO would henceforward be the sole 'legitimate representative', etc. This would suit both parties admirably.

Saudi support would be second in importance only to that of Syria for the consummation and consolidation of the Gaza/Jericho deal. When Arafat supported Saddam over the invasion of Kuwait, the Saudis cut off the funds that had kept the PLO afloat, and these are still cut off.

The consequent discontent among Arafat's impoverished following was no doubt among the factors that led Arafat to try his Gaza gamble. But if the gamble does in fact result in autonomy for Gaza/Jericho he is going to need the Saudi money again, in order to satisfy some of the expectations of the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the Strip. The Americans will no doubt be working on that one in Riyadh to ensure that the money goes to Arafat for his PLO, rather than other claimants. And the Saudis have reason to agree.

An Arafat who has done a deal with Israel will be in no position to encourage Saddam or engage in anti-Saudi demagogy. In short, Arafat's PLO would be obliged, by their circumstances, to earn their subsidy.

For Israel, the deal, if it can be consummated with the help of those three Arab states, would have great advantages. It would be a step towards peace with Syria, meaning that Israel would now be at peace with all its Arab neighbours. Syria would get the Golan, and a free hand in the Lebanon, in exchange for an undertaking that Syria would not allow attacks on Israel from territory under Syrian control. In practice, this would mean the liquidation of Hizbollah, an operation that is probably already on Assad's agenda, in the interests of his own regime.

The kind of settlement that is now mooted for Gaza/Jericho would also be a useful precedent for a form of autonomy on the West Bank which would provide guarantees for Israel's security, with a proviso for 'no new Jewish settlements' but no commitment to uproot existing ones.

If this deal can be made to work, the prospects for improved Arab-Israeli relations will become brighter than they have ever been. But first, both sides will have to work their separate ways around a number of dark and dangerous corners.

(Photograph omitted)

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