After Arafat's deal is dead: The Middle East must prepare for the demise of the PLO-Israeli accord, says Robert Fisk

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JUST before he flew to Washington to make peace with Israel, Yasser Arafat followed a precedent set by President Anwar Sadat and took the road to Damascus. The PLO leader was invited to sit on a stiff-backed chair in the drawing room of the palace there while Syria's president, Hafez al-Assad, took his place on Arafat's right. Assad remained silent as Arafat told him of the secret agreements worked out between the PLO and Israel in Oslo. Then the president told the PLO chairman, slowly and carefully: 'You are sitting on the chair that Sadat sat on when he came to see me before his peace treaty with Israel - and look what happened to him.' Arafat's reply is not known - perhaps there was none - but Abdul-Halim Khaddam, the vice-president, later privately described the PLO-Israeli accord as 'the worst document the Arabs have signed since the 1948 partition of Palestine'.

At the time, of course, it was greeted with ill-judged euphoria by almost everyone except the suspicious Syrians. It was a peace to end all war, a covenant of trust between old enemies. Those, including a few journalists, who suggested that it could turn into a peace to end all peace - that it constituted a Palestinian surrender as dangerous to Israel as it was to the Palestinians - were self-righteously condemned as 'enemies of peace'. Only now that Israel itself is questioning the worth of the Oslo agreement has it become generally permissible to criticise the accord and to ask how on earth it came about in the first place.

That the Palestinians will be the greater losers in the event of its collapse, is, of course, almost as inevitable as the identity of those whom the world will be encouraged to blame for its failure - the Palestinian victims. With the Israeli prime minister's assertion that the prospects of peace after the Hebron massacre are now being hindered by Arafat's refusal to recommence negotiations, this process has already begun.

Nevertheless, it did not take Baruch Goldstein's act of mass murder to reveal the Oslo agreement's omissions - its lack of international guarantees and the postponement of any resolution on the status of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements (the heavily-armed institutions from which Goldstein sprang). The Israeli army was supposed to have started its withdrawal from the occupied territories last autumn. It did not withdraw one soldier. Indeed, since the autumn, the number of troops has increased rather than decreased as Arafat's political and military weakness has become ever more obvious to the Palestinians themselves. The PLO-Israeli declaration of principles, it now appears, rested not so much on principles as on a strange concoction of euphoria and ill-defined promises. The Norwegian intermediaries somehow convinced everyone that the friendship of Israelis and Palestinians towards each other would be commensurate with the hatred they had felt for each other in the past. Surely, so went this dangerous notion, mutual trust would flourish after so many mutual atrocities.

But regardless of whether the PLO-Israeli accord dies - and it is not yet buried - the problems of the Middle East will not go away. The tragedy of the Palestinians, the security of both Palestinians and Israelis, recognition and peace for Israel, peace for the Arab states - these issues will still have to be resolved. And in several Arab capitals, ministers are already discussing what will happen if the handshake on the White House lawn turns out to be as fruitless as its critics have always suggested.

The first and most obvious fact is that Israel's Arab neighbours will still want peace. Despite the hostile rhetoric of Syria and Israel towards each other, both nations need peace just as much as Jordan and Lebanon. With the demise of the Soviet Union and with Islamic radicalism as much a threat to secular Arabs as to Israelis, the system of treaties slowly worked out in Washington since the Madrid conference will have to be concluded. To Assad, as much as to the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, this is self-evident.

The problem is that such treaties cannot be signed unless there is a genuine resolution to the Palestinian problem. Most Arab leaders are dictators, but the much-ridiculed 'Arab masses', whose voice is rarely heard in the worthless votes and censored newspapers of Arab regimes, will not stomach total betrayal. The fate of the Shah and of Anwar Sadat haunts every Middle East ruler, even if Arafat's ghost has not yet joined them.

So who does hold the key to peace in the event of the collapse of the PLO-Israeli accord? In Assad's view it is Syria. Many Arabs also suspect that he may be right. Syria, they say, is trying to take King Hussein under its 'protection' to 'co-ordinate' the Jordanian-Syrian role in a future peace. Syria, they say, is happy to allow Saudi Arabia to bankroll a Middle East peace, equally happy to continue its own free hand in the rich and fertile soil of Lebanon, with which Damascus now has a treaty of Friendship and Co- operation. And because of its unique alliance with Iran, Syria - so Assad believes he convinced President Bill Clinton in Geneva - holds the key to future American-Iranian relations. Overseas financial and moral support for the Palestinian Islamic movements comes principally from Tehran; so if Iranian enthusiasm for an Islamic revolution in 'Palestine' is to be checked - not to mention its sponsorship of the Lebanese Hizbollah - then who better to do that than Syria?

Furthermore, it is in Damascus that the remaining secular Palestinian movement - the PLO groups opposed to both Arafat and the 'Islamicisation' of the occupied territories - have their headquarters. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), for example, with its forays across the Lebanese-Israeli border and its old-fashioned socialism, is scarcely an attractive negotiating partner for the Israelis, let alone the other radical secular Palestinian groups. But the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad have no compromises to discuss in their demand for an Islamic state in all of what was British mandate Palestine.

Of course, such speculation is still premature. Arafat, victim of numerous failed assassination plots, may just survive again to march into his pitiful mini-state. But each day suggests that the Middle East must prepare for life after the death of the quaint deal hatched up in Oslo last year. A new 'peace' would have to be made in public, not in secret - perhaps with the rebirth of a Palestinian negotiating team in Washington. Israel would be talking to a new Palestinian leadership, listening to immediate demands for the total removal of all Jewish settlers and total military withdrawal from all occupied territories, although there are elements of the old accord which might be retained - the necessity for Palestinian elections, for instance, and the need for international observers. In the meantime, President Assad will watch and wait. And Arab eyes will be on Damascus.

(Photographs omitted)

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