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The beginning of the end of Yassir Arafat? The Palestine Liberation Front on the point of irrevocable disintegration? The twilight of the Palestinian movement? No sooner had a mutiny been declared in a Fatah barracks in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley last May than the international press was full of such questions-legitimate, to be sure, but premature to say the least. And the political analysts who hastened to reply in the affirmative often did so without sufficiently taking into account the complexity of the crisis or the roles of the various protagonists-behind the scenes as well as center stage-their stated objectives, ulterior motives and miscalculations.
The dissidence within Fatah implicates, directly or indirectly, and to varying degrees, the Arab states (particularly Syria and Libya), Israel, the United States, the U.S.S.R., and other powers outside the region. Moreover, the international community is concerned by this seemingly internal struggle, for on its outcome hangs not only the solution or persistence of the Palestinian problem but, beyond that, the security and stability of a region crucial to the West.
This is not to minimize the importance of the local factors which set off the powder keg, even if it is true that the disagreement which actually triggered the rebellion-Yassir Arafat's appointment to senior command posts of two officers contested by their peers-seems trivial. The appointment was perhaps untimely and ill advised, but it lay well within the powers of the PLO president, and was hardly the first time accusations of unfairness or arbitrariness could have been made. The Fedayeen chief in fact has often been reproached, by friends and adversaries alike, for the "personal power" he wields within the organization, but in the past this never led to confrontations. In fact, it was implicitly understood that without such power he would have been condemned to paralysis by the very dynamics of the movement.
Indeed, the PLO is not a single unified body but a coalition grouping eight Fedayeen organizations running the ideological and political gamut from right to extreme left, from Islamic to Marxist-Leninist. Certain of these organizations maintain close ties with, and indeed serve as the instruments of, Arab governments often at loggerheads with one another. Counteracting these centrifugal factors are at least three that contribute to maintaining the unity, if not the cohesion, of the Fedayeen's central body: the determination to establish a Palestinian state, the charismatic personality of Yassir Arafat, and the relatively democratic institutions governing the PLO.
Primary among these is the PLO's parliament, the Palestine National Council (PNC), where all the various currents are represented at near-yearly sessions marked by heated and often stormy debates. No rubber stamp organization, the PNC is called upon to scrutinize carefully, then approve or reject, the financial and political reports submitted to it; determine the fundamental policies and programs of the movement; elect the organization's leading bodies which are to implement these policies between sessions; and approve the composition of the PLO Executive Committee, which functions as a government, in keeping with the distribution of seats agreed to by the eight constituent groups. At least a third of the Executive Committee Members are declared adversaries of Yassir Arafat and do not hesitate, as at the last PNC meeting in Algiers in February 1983, to take him violently to task.
But the problem is that the system, however democratic, is not adapted to a collectivity which has neither territory nor a state, and which is not in a position to give its leader all the means he would need to implement its policy. Yassir Arafat, at once the reflection and the result of the disparate or contradictory tendencies, has thus given himself a margin of personal maneuver enabling him to survive in a regional and international environment which is either outright hostile or torn by centrifugal forces. Nonetheless, the system does have the advantage of providing a forum and safety valve for opponents who, in exchange, show a certain tolerance for the personal initiatives of the PLO president.
The fact that the mutiny originated not with one of the "extremist" organizations but within Fatah, the core and mainstream of the PLO, made it both more serious (Fatah represents some 80 percent of the Fedayeen and probably a like percentage of the Palestinian population at large) and more perplexing, since the organization had always shied away from ideology. Indeed, the dissidence would have been incomprehensible without the profound changes wrought by Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Yassir Arafat's boastful claim that the war had ended with a "major victory" for the Palestinian resistance gave rise to a profound malaise in Palestinian ranks, even among his own supporters.
In a way, he wasn't entirely wrong. While a mere six days had sufficed for the Israelis to decimate the Arab armies in June 1967 and three weeks had done the job in October 1973, the war in Lebanon-the first where Palestinians and Israelis fought face to face-lasted three months despite the fact that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had unleashed forces superior in both numbers and quality to those which had participated in the two previous conflicts.
The Palestinian defenders of Beirut held out more than 70 days under the relentless pounding of Israeli heavy artillery and aviation. Their withdrawal from the Lebanese capital bore little resemblance to a capitulation: their machine guns slung over their shoulders, their hands raised in "V for victory" salutes, the Fedayeen left the city amid volleys of rifle fire and tumultuous acclamations from the crowd. Yassir Arafat boarded a luxury liner and, escorted by warships, set sail for Athens where he was accorded a welcome worthy of a head of state.
Like Gamal Abdel Nasser before him, the PLO chief had partially succeeded in transforming a military defeat into a political victory. It is true that the excessive brutality of the Israeli forces contributed in no small way to that end. The mass media, and particularly television, coverage of the war roused pity and indignation among Westerners concerning the fate of the Palestinians, thus helping to legitimate the very cause that was defended, for better or for worse, by the PLO. On more than one occasion, I watched Yassir Arafat delightedly pore over the opinion polls on the subject in the Western press: "I'd be satisfied if Western opinion becomes aware of the Palestinian reality," he repeated.
But the reality of world opinion paled before a far starker reality, which the Palestinian people, nursing terrible wounds, perceived far more intensely. The military commanders of the PLO, in particular, were well placed to gauge the full extent of the defeat. In private, they expressed bitter resentment over the political leaders' failure to anticipate that the Israeli army would wage all-out war and push their offensive to Beirut, and this despite clear information received from certain Western counterintelligence services (among other sources) on which they could have based a coherent defense strategy. Others pointed out that the war had been lost in advance in any event, thanks to Yassir Arafat and his top military commander, Abu Jihad, who had committed the fundamental error of transforming the Fedayeen from a guerrilla organization-invincible because it was elusive-into a regular army bogged down with heavy weaponry and structures that made it an easy target for the Israeli army, reputed to be one of the most efficient in the world.
The consequences of the debacle nourished the malaise among the military chiefs, particularly of Fatah, which constituted the backbone of the Palestinian forces. In abandoning Beirut, the Resistance lost its "Hanoi," its sanctuary as well as its operational base. The dispersion of the Fedayeen among nine Arab countries, some of them thousands of kilometers from Israel, meant that the PLO in practice had renounced the armed struggle, since those forces remaining in eastern and northern Lebanon would sooner or later be obliged to evacuate the territory.
Beyond the recognition of this failure, on which there was a consensus, opinions diverged. A large number of the Palestinian officers believed that the defeat had not eliminated the political role of the PLO; this was also the view held by virtually all the political leaders, both supporters and opponents of Arafat. According to this line, the defeat did not substantially change the military situation, since even before the war in Lebanon the military dimension of the Palestinian resistance against Israel was insignificant, even symbolic. In the entire year preceding the invasion, the Fedayeen had fired mortars into Galilee (in northern Israel) only once. And ever since the civil war in Lebanon had broken out eight years earlier, the Palestinian forces had been tied down in battles against the Christian militias and their allies; their antiaircraft guns and rockets had been turned against Israeli targets only in response to the bombing missions against Palestinian military targets or refugee camps. The weapons were stocked not for an offensive against the Zionist state, but for the eventuality of an Israeli invasion or a resumption of the civil war.
But this was not the position of a small number of senior officers, in whom Colonel Qaddafi's appeal, launched from the safety of Tripoli, inviting the Palestinians to "commit suicide rather than capitulate," struck a responsive chord. While not taking the Libyan president quite at his word, they vehemently opposed any withdrawal from Beirut on the grounds that the Israeli army would never risk besieging the city in view of the heavy losses it would have to incur. The massacre of the Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps scarcely three weeks after the Fedayeen's departure from Beirut added weight to their contention that the slaughter never would have occurred had Arafat not believed the American guarantees for the security of civilians and given the order to evacuate.
Nonetheless, the war in Lebanon was not the sole cause of last May's uprising. What it did was provide a catalyst for numerous long-standing grievances held by men who in any event were seeking to gain control of Fatah. The key dissident, Abu Saleh, Marxist-oriented and pro-Soviet, had long been at odds with the other members of Fatah's central committee. The same held true for Ahmed Kedri, likewise a member of Fatah's ruling body, who is a rightist. Colonel Khaled al-Oumla, reputed to be the group's ideologist, espouses a Marxism-Leninism he claims is stricter than that of either the U.S.S.R. or China.
The military chief of the rebels, Colonel Abu Musa, who has explained himself volubly in the press, is more typical of the dissenting officers. A 56-year-old native of Jerusalem, he graduated from the British military academy of Sandhurst, undergoing additional training in various Eastern bloc countries. Generally respected for his military qualities and abilities, physical courage and discipline, he distinguished himself in the 1970 conflict pitting the Fedayeen against the Jordanian army, in the civil war in Lebanon (1975-76), and especially during the siege of West Beirut during the summer of 1982, when he directed the city's defense against the Israeli forces. Appointed deputy chief of military operations after the war, he was also head of the Yarmuk brigade when the mutiny erupted last spring. His involvement did not fail to astonish even those who knew him well, for he was thought to be "apolitical," by reason of the somewhat utopian ideas he expressed on occasion and especially the exemplary loyalty he displayed toward the Fatah leadership.
Although coming from very different political horizons, from the right to the Marxist left, Fatah's dissident officers did have a number of things in common: almost all had come from the Jordanian army, which they deserted to join the Fedayeen during the 1970 debacle; their ultra-nationalism had led them to contest the Palestine National Council's June 1974 decision to accept in principle a Palestinian state alongside and not in place of Israel; they all opposed the PLO's cooperation with the conservative Arab states, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and they all favored a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union.
Three months before the mutiny broke out, Abu Musa gave clear and precise expression to opinions he said were his own. During a closed door session of Fatah's Revolutionary Council held in Aden on January 27, 1983, he launched into a veritable diatribe against Fatah policy and, without naming him, against Yassir Arafat himself. The text which formed the basis of his indictment-which in fact had been drafted collectively by the dissident group and which was circulated after the mutiny was launched-indicated that the rebels were violently opposed to any compromise with Israel and that their objective was "to liberate all Palestine" in accordance with the PLO charter, which in their view had been violated by a whole series of PNC resolutions and the diplomacy of Yassir Arafat. It stated their opposition to the Reagan Plan, the Fez Plan adopted by the Arab heads of state in September 1982, negotiations with King Hussein, and the contacts established with Egypt and with Israeli pacifists. It proposed the resumption of armed struggle-"the sole road to liberation"-in Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and the West Bank (the text specified that the struggle would be launched from Jordanian territory after the overthrow of the Hashemite regime) and the implementation of operations aimed at "striking and liquidating" American interests in the Middle East and "ending the U.S. hegemony in the region."
Abu Musa's speech, according to witnesses, was greeted with polite smiles and a glacial silence by the other members of the Revolutionary Council, who were far from imagining that the "revolutionary romanticism" they found so totally removed from reality was in fact shared by an underground group of which he was spokesman, or that his speech had been intended as a last, serious warning to Yassir Arafat before they proceeded with an armed uprising. The secret had been well kept: it later transpired that the dissident colonels had established contacts with the Syrian and Libyan authorities immediately after the withdrawal from Beirut in August 1982; one of them had been personally received by Colonel Qaddafi. As of November, they were ready for action, awaiting only the "green light" from Damascus and Tripoli.
Information on the matter obtained later by Fatah Intelligence was dismissed by the organization's leaders, accustomed to dissent, factionalism and the formation of secret groups and alliances within an organization which, no less than the PLO as a whole, encompasses a wide spectrum of opinion from far right to far left. More important, they were skeptical concerning reports of cooperation with Syria, judging that so "unnatural" an alliance could never get off the ground. Indeed, most of the plotters, starting with Abu Musa, had fought against the Syrian army in Lebanon in 1975-76. Even more, their "maximalist" objectives were totally at odds with the policy of President Assad. Not only had the latter personally approved the Fez Plan, but his government, for all its rhetoric, had been seeking a peaceful compromise with Israel on the basis of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 ever since the October 1973 war: it had agreed in principle immediately following the war to participate in the Geneva peace conference, had scrupulously applied the disengagement agreement concluded in 1974 through the mediation of Henry Kissinger, and had observed the cease-fire on the Golan to the point that not a single incident had occurred since it took effect. In view of the record, the chances of President Assad's giving the Fatah mutineers free rein to carry out military operations from his territory against Israel and the Golan, Lebanon, or anywhere else would be slim indeed.
Nonetheless, from all indications the Fatah rebels stand firm in their conviction that Damascus will help them "liberate Palestine" through armed struggle, and Yassir Arafat appears to have underestimated the naïveté of his adversaries. He also seems to have underestimated the depth of President Assad's antipathy toward him. It is, of course, common knowledge that the two men have detested each other for years, starting in 1966 when Hafez al-Assad, at the time defense minister, had Yassir Arafat, then an obscure underground militant of Fatah, arrested for a crime he hadn't committed.
Yassir Arafat has taken very much to heart certain of Assad's actions: as defense minister in 1970, he countermanded his government's orders and prevented the Syrian air force from coming to the rescue of the Fedayeen, who were backed into a corner and engaged in a life and death struggle against the Jordanian army. In the early stages of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975-76, Mr. Assad, who in the meantime had seized power in Damascus, instructed his army to lend military support to the Christian militias against the PLO and its Lebanese allies-a support which extended to participating alongside the Christian fighters in the obliteration of the Palestinian refugee camp, Tal Zaatar, at the cost of thousands of Palestinian lives. And, finally, the military balance in Lebanon, which President Assad took pains to maintain until the withdrawal of his forces in the summer of 1982, in practice favored the Christian militias of Bashir Gemayel.
President Assad's behavior was undoubtedly dictated by reasons of state rather than a particular hostility toward the Palestinians. In his view, Yassir Arafat and his allies on the Lebanese left were "irresponsible," given the international and regional balance of power. And in a way, he was right, since Israel, the United States, and more generally Western Europe, never would have allowed the defeat of the conservative Christian formations and the coming to power in Beirut of the Lebanese left, the ally of the PLO.
But the essential reason lies elsewhere: one of the main objectives of President Assad's strategy has been and continues to be the control of Lebanon and Yassir Arafat's organization, two trump cards that would immeasurably strengthen Syria's hand in any comprehensive negotiations on the future of the Middle East. But Fatah, distrusting all Arab regimes, was founded some quarter century ago to avoid just such tutelage, and Palestinian "autonomy of the power of decision" remains absolutely central to its policy. The fundamental incompatibility between Assad's and Arafat's positions has not ceased to poison their relations and nourish Syrian-Palestinian quarrels and confrontations for close to a decade.
Last May, on the eve of the mutiny within Fatah, a leading member of Syria's ruling Baath Party explained the disagreement to me in the following terms: "Yassir Arafat fancies that his cause is exclusively Palestinian and that our role, as Arabs, consists of supporting him blindly. But Palestine is our raison d'être as well, and we have the right-especially after the heavy sacrifices we have made for the cause-to discuss, contest, and even to oppose this or that action of the PLO . . . ." The Baath leader went on to explain that the PLO, as a "revolutionary organization," was obliged to remain intransigent toward Israel and to reject all compromises such as Resolution 242 or the Fez Plan, which the Syrian government had approved for tactical reasons. What was not explicitly admitted was that such negativism would inevitably exclude the Fedayeen organization from the international scene to the benefit of Syria, which would then take it upon itself to negotiate in its stead. Given the Baath party's pan-Arab ideology lumping Palestinians, Syrians and other Arabs into one "nation," such an eventuality in Damascus' eyes appeared entirely logical and normal.
It is this hidden agenda that accounts for the Baath government's hostility to all Yassir Arafat's diplomatic initiatives and conciliatory gestures. All his contacts, secret and otherwise, with successive American Administrations and with the Israeli peace movement (these last carried out mainly through Issam Sartawi), as well as his attempts to reach a basis for compromise with the Jewish state, have aroused suspicion and anger in Damascus. During the 1982 war in Lebanon, to go back no further, at least three of Arafat's initiatives had sorely irritated the Syrian president. In July, Arafat had supported two texts-the first jointly prepared by three internationally prominent Jews, Nahum Goldmann, Philip Klutznick and Pierre Mendès-France, and the second in a draft resolution submitted to the U.N. Security Council by France and Egypt-calling for the mutual recognition of the Israelis and Palestinians as a prelude to a peaceful settlement. In addition, he had made a commitment in writing to the American congressman Paul McCloskey to subscribe to "all the United Nations resolutions concerning Palestine," which clearly signified acceptance of the partition of the territory into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, in keeping with the text voted by the U.N. General Assembly in November 1947.
Finally, the PLO president had launched an appeal from Beirut under siege for the convocation of an international peace conference, thus demonstrating, as Egypt's President Anwar Sadat had done during the heat of the 1973 October War, his readiness to negotiate peace with Israel. President Assad's extreme displeasure at these moves expressed itself in his failure to provide Fatah with the slightest aid during the Israeli onslaught (to the point of confiscating the Soviet arms shipments being sent to the Palestinian organization) and his refusal to so much as answer Yassir Arafat's telephone calls.
The Begin government's action in Lebanon was a real boon for the Syrians. By driving the Palestinians from Beirut and destroying their leadership structures in Lebanon, the Israelis in practice made the PLO dependent on the good will of the Baathist regime, which wasted no time in making clear its intentions. The Palestinian fighters were disarmed immediately upon their arrival on Syrian soil and, before being sequestered in camps far from the urban centers, were informed by President Assad that "Damascus is not and never will be Beirut," that there would be no "state within a state" in Syria, and that the Fedayeen would not be permitted to carry arms within the country, which in any event would be unnecessary since their security was solely the responsibility of the Syrian forces.
President Assad refused to receive Yassir Arafat, who had not sufficiently gauged the Syrian chief of state's determination and who had perhaps imagined that through pressure or ruse he could regain the freedom of action he had lost first in Jordan and then in Lebanon. Whatever his calculations, he continued to act as if the "second Palestinian republic in exile" had not died on August 31, the day of his "triumphal departure" from Beirut. Throughout the fall of 1982 and the following spring, he increased direct and indirect contacts with foreign capitals, including Paris and Washington, to sound out whether the "mutual recognition" between Israel and the PLO that he intended to submit to the Palestine National Council for approval would find support among the Western powers. To this end, he initiated a discreet dialogue with Egypt, dispatched emissaries to the United States, officially received in Tunis leaders of the Israeli peace movement (with whom he had himself photographed), declared that the Reagan Plan included "positive aspects," and, as of October 1982, opened negotiations with King Hussein concerning the creation of a confederation between Jordan and an eventual Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Yassir Arafat did not even deign to acknowledge the more or less veiled warnings and threats emanating from Damascus. In mid-October, shortly after the first round of talks between the Jordanian monarch and the PLO leader, the Syrian Information Minister, Ahmed Iskander, declared to The New York Times that Arafat did not represent the PLO as a whole. The following month, Abu Nidal-Arafat's mortal enemy who had been carrying out assassinations from his sanctuary in Baghdad for the past decade and whose men assassinated Issam Sartawi in Portugal on April 10, 1983-was authorized to open offices in Damascus. In December, Abu Saleh-the political leader of the future rebellion within Fatah-declared to UPI that the Palestinians had "lost confidence in Arafat" because he had "strayed from the Palestinian consensus" by negotiating with King Hussein. Then in January came Abu Musa's indictment of Arafat's policy. Finally, on February 7, three Syrian-controlled groups belonging to the PLO held a meeting in Damascus-and made no secret of it-to examine the possibility of a split within the umbrella organization.
Yassir Arafat had reached a dead end. Militarily finished in Lebanon (which he knew full well even though he didn't admit it publicly), he had been unable to make effective use of the increased sympathy toward the Palestinian cause in world opinion. All his hopes of starting up a peace process under conditions favorable to the Palestinians had turned out to be illusory. His conciliatory gestures and the appeal he had made for the convocation of a peace conference had been greeted with indifference. And for good reason. He was doomed to fail because Israel-the Labor opposition no less than the Likud Party now in power-categorically rejects any possibility of negotiation with the PLO, and has clearly stated that this position would not change even if the "terrorist organization" were to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. At the same time, the Reagan Administration has ruled out the possibility of an international conference that would include the U.S.S.R., even though such a conference in practice would mean that both parties to the conflict recognize each other and accept the principle of a negotiated settlement.
The United States, the only power with any leverage over Israel, has remained faithful to the "Kissinger clause" (the former Secretary of State's commitment to Israel at the time of the September 1975 Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement), whereby Washington would engage in no dialogue with the PLO without the PLO's prior recognition of Resolution 242 and Israel's right to exist. Yassir Arafat, loath to give up what he considers one of his most valuable bargaining chips, has tried through various emissaries to persuade the American Administration to change its attitude. Among other things, he proposed recognizing the state of Israel on condition that Israel recognize the Palestinians' right to their own state in the West Bank and Gaza. France, though supporting such a compromise, told the PLO president that it was not in a position to bring the other West European countries around to its viewpoint, much less influence the American attitude.
So on the eve of the PNC meeting last February, at which Yassir Arafat had hoped to announce a diplomatic breakthrough which would strengthen the "moderate" wing of the PLO and partially compensate for the defeat in Lebanon, the impasse was total. During an interview he granted me at the time, he explained that no one would follow him if he proposed, as Washington demanded, unilateral and unconditional recognition of Israel, especially since such an initiative would bring no tangible result. As Faruk Kaddoumi, the head of PLO diplomacy, added ironically, the "price for the honor of having lunch with Mr. George Shultz" was simply "too high." And, in fact, State Department officials had emphasized to the Arab emissaries that the "dialogue" that would be initiated with the PLO if Washington's conditions were met carried no guarantees as to results, since the United States had neither the capability nor the intention of compelling Israel to reverse its policy in the occupied territories. Recent experience, coupled with the "strategic alliance" concluded between Israel and the United States, did not leave the Palestinians any room to doubt the frankness of the American officials.
In light of the foregoing, Arafat was faced with four alternatives, none of which in his eyes would lead to a solution to the Palestine problem:
-The first, which consisted of embracing the intransigent positions of the Rejectionist Front (refusal of any compromise, including the Fez Plan, and exclusive pursuit of a hypothetical armed struggle), would aggravate the Palestinian movement's isolation on the international scene and, in practice, give Syria and its allies the exclusive right to negotiate instead of the PLO.
-At the other end of the scale, the "Sadat option" of recognizing the Jewish state without any quid pro quo would lead to an even greater catastrophe. Israeli Prime Minister Begin, for whom the West Bank and Gaza are endowed with an emotional value almost entirely lacking for the Sinai, would never have for Arafat the "magnanimity" he showed the Egyptian president, and would not yield an inch. Although the PLO leader conceded in private that this option would increase sympathy for the Palestinian cause in world opinion and earn kind words from the United States and Europe concerning his "courage," it would assuredly result in the fragmentation of the PLO, a split within Fatah, and his own denunciation as a traitor.
-The third alternative, to accept, as is, the Reagan Plan for an Israeli-Jordanian settlement, would have the same negative consequences as the preceding option with none of its advantages, however meagre. Insofar as the American President not only excludes the PLO from the peace process but rules out, a priori, the creation of an eventual Palestinian state, the PLO's acceptance of the plan would be tantamount to scuttling both its role and its raison d'être. And the distrust of Israel and Jordan is such that no private assurances concerning the "dynamic" of eventual negotiations would suffice to rally the Palestinians to the plan.
-The last possibility, pursuing the PLO's habitual policy of prevarication and ambiguous overtures, would be sterile and even dangerous in that it would prolong the organization's paralysis while Israel continued to forge ahead with its colonization of the occupied territories.
After months of hesitation which forced him to put off convening the PNC a number of times between October 1982 and February 1983, Arafat finally settled on the fourth option. He apparently considered that it involved fewer disadvantages and risks than the other three. Hadn't he managed for some 15 years to preserve his organization's cohesion and extend its prestige internationally by cultivating precisely this ambiguity? And hadn't he won considerable advantages from all the Arab regimes by playing one off against the other? Why couldn't he do the same with the U.S.S.R. and the United States, while awaiting a more favorable situation?
As one of Arafat's close associates explained to a group of PNC members in February, what was needed was to gain time. Given the instability of a number of Arab regimes, one of them was bound to fall, which would alter the balance of power. In the meantime, he went on, the Palestinians had to take into account the U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and extend or enlarge their channels of communication with the pro-American Arab states, Egypt as well as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while preserving their ties to the socialist camp and its allies in the region. It was this strategy of "movement within immobilism," as it was called with a straight face, that gained the day at the 12th Palestine National Council.
The conference, humorously dubbed "the conference of the yes-no," was finally held in Algiers from February 14-22 of this year. Addressing the assembly during a closed session, Arafat declared: "It's true that we are being offered nothing of value, but we can't afford to say no to everything. We can't say yes to everything either. So we have to learn to say 'yes, but', and 'no, but' . . . ." The resolutions adopted by the PNC were in keeping with the Palestinian leader's wishes. The Reagan Plan was not formally rejected, but deemed "inadequate as a valid basis for a fair and lasting settlement." The Brezhnev Plan, providing for the mutual recognition of Israel and the future Palestinian state, was "supported" but not adopted. Egypt was invited to "distance itself" from the Camp David Accords but not to denounce them, thus allowing the continuation of the dialogue with Cairo. The contacts with all Jewish "progressive and democratic forces" were to be pursued, and no distinction was made between Zionist and anti-Zionist, despite the importance of such a distinction for a large part of the assembly, thus enabling Arafat to meet whatever Israelis he wished.
Finally, the PNC approved the resumption of negotiations with King Hussein concerning the creation of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, a nod to President Reagan, but with two sine qua non conditions: the PLO had to be accepted as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinians had to be able to exercise their right to self determination, including the right to have a sovereign state. Last but not least, the "strategic alliance" with Syria was to be consolidated, but at the same time good relations were to be cultivated with all other Arab countries, whatever the regime.
At the closing session of the conference, Yassir Arafat was radiant, effusively hugging and congratulating friends and enemies alike. He thought he had reached his main objectives. He had preserved and consolidated the unity, however factitious, of the PLO; he had asked for the assembly's confirmation of his reelection as head of the PLO by the Executive Committee (an additional insurance policy not required under PLO by-laws, but which subsequent events proved to have been a wise move), and the PNC had done so unanimously. And, especially, the very ambiguity of the resolutions gave him the margin for maneuver he needed to pursue his own diplomacy according to his personal interpretation of the texts. In this regard, Nayef Hawatmeh, secretary general of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, remarked jokingly to Arafat in my presence: "We propose, but it's you who dispose." The truth underlying the teasing words was soon dramatically illustrated.
Immediately after the conference, the PLO president flew to Amman to resume his negotiations behind closed doors with King Hussein, who ended by signing the protocol agreement drafted jointly and amended by Yassir Arafat in his own hand. Determined to keep a free rein, Arafat had been careful not to inform the other Palestinian leaders, including his closest companions in the Fatah leadership, of the substance of the document. And indeed the text contained at least three major violations of the PNC decisions, none of which could have been swallowed: it did not designate the PLO as a negotiating party in eventual talks with Israel; it did not recognize the Palestinian people's right to set up their own sovereign state before joining up with Jordan; and especially-and this on the insistence of King Hussein-it specifically mentioned only the Reagan Plan among the "various projects" which might lead to a settlement.
But at the last minute, Arafat prudently refused to countersign or even initial the protocol and flew to Kuwait to obtain the prior approval of the Palestinian leadership. For the first time in the history of the movement, Yassir Arafat was repudiated first by the PLO Executive Committee and then by the whole of the Central Committee of Fatah, his own organization. Despite his pleading and threats to resign, none of his comrades was in a position to ratify such "tactical" choices. On April 10, King Hussein, who in the meantime had received the Executive Committee's counterproposals for "amending" the protocol agreement, considering his confidence betrayed, officially renounced pursuing any negotiations to implement the Reagan Plan.
Despite his isolation and humiliation, Yassir Arafat did not give up. Nor was he deterred by the obvious warning intended by the assassination on April 10, several hours before negotiations with Jordan were officially broken off, of Issam Sartawi, a leading Palestinian peace advocate and Arafat's main conduit to Israeli figures. He immediately dispatched to Washington Ahmed Abu Settah, a member of the Executive Committee whom he considers a kind of spiritual father, to try to get the Reagan Administration to soften its position by at least recognizing the Palestinian people's "right to self-determination." At the same time, he was behind the Algerian "initiative" of the latter part of April, when President Chadli Benjedid's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, traveled to Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia trying to rally support for the principle of a referendum in the occupied territories. Under this proposal, the Palestinians would be asked to choose between three options: annexation of the occupied territories by Israel, incorporation into Jordan, or the establishment of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Both initiatives failed: Mr. Brahimi ran up against the categorical rejection of Syria, and Mr. Abu Setta returned from Washington with empty hands.
Meanwhile, Syria's patience had run out. "Too much is too much," Mr. Mohamed Heydar, a member of the ruling Baath's leadership, told me in Damascus at the end of April. According to Mr. Heydar, Yassir Arafat was a man consumed by ambition, whose sole aim was to become president of a mini-state at the expense of the interests of the Palestinians and the Arab nation. The Syrians had been "shocked" by the choice of Algiers rather than Damascus for the PNC meeting, by the resolutions adopted there, by the PLO president's "flirtation" with their Jordanian, Iraqi and Egyptian adversaries and more generally with the "reactionary Arabs" (Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states). Furthermore, he added, it was Syria's conviction that Yassir Arafat was not only isolated within the PLO but also discredited in the eyes of the Palestinian people at large.
And there is no doubt that Palestinian opinion was in a state of profound disarray. Massacred, decimated and hounded in Lebanon, faced with a highly uncertain future in most of the Arab countries and in the occupied territories, where "creeping annexation" was intensifying and accelerating, the Palestinians had placed exaggerated hopes in the PNC meeting.
The results of that meeting were perplexing for them. There was no critical analysis of the events in Lebanon the previous summer or the dramatic phase that followed. The PLO leadership was renewed as it was, as if nothing had happened. The final resolutions, the product of skillful balancing and carefully worked-out ambiguities, where things were implied rather than stated, were simply beyond them, as was the multi-faceted diplomacy of Yassir Arafat. How to explain that Arafat had not formulated the slightest criticism of the Reagan Plan during his many speeches and interventions before the PNC, or that he had tried to slip into a peace process that had Washington's blessing, and in the company of King Hussein at that? It seems apparent that the PLO president had underestimated the virulence of anti-American sentiment in a population which over the years had ended by seeing the United States not merely an ally of the Israeli "hawks," but as their accomplice.
So President Assad, convinced that the time was ripe for striking his intractable adversary, gave the Fatah dissidents the green light they were waiting for. And Arafat unwittingly gave them a pretext by naming to top command posts in Lebanon two officers whose main qualifications appeared to be their loyalty to him. At the same time, a scenario aimed at demonstrating, a posteriori, the Syrian president's innocence of any involvement in Palestinian affairs was set up: on April 30, the secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party, George Hawi (who was not party to the true aim of his mission), visited Yassir Arafat in Tunis to inform him that President Assad was prepared to receive him to settle their differences amicably. The PLO president, initially surprised and suspicious, ended by accepting the invitation, dismissing the opinion of Abu Iyad, head of Palestinian Intelligence, that it was a trap. On May 3, then, President Assad received Yassir Arafat and other PLO leaders with much fanfare and extensive press coverage, and it was agreed that joint committees be set up to do away with the causes of the Syrian-Palestinian dispute. Three days later, a section of the Yarmuk brigade under the leadership of Colonel Abu Musa rose up in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. And while arms and supplies from Syria and Libya poured in to the mutineers, protected by expeditionary forces from Damascus, the Baathist republic declared its "neutrality" in the conflict.
President Assad had been secure in his conviction that his control over the Fedayeen of the Bekaa constituted the winning card: in his hands lay the decision of whether or not the Fedayeen could wage an armed struggle. Deprived of the military option, the PLO would be reduced to a political organization whose leaders, scattered about the four corners of the Arab world, would be condemned to powerlessness. But the Syrian chief of state had misjudged his hand. He had counted on the fact that mutiny would spread like wildfire through the Palestinian movement; in fact, it remained confined to the Bekaa Valley and at the end of August counted only several hundred fighters out of the 20,000 Fedayeen of the PLO. Even more decisive was his failure to anticipate the virtually unanimous surge of support in favor of Yassir Arafat from the Palestinian people.
This phenomenon can be explained by several factors. External threats, notably from Syria, whose past actions had left bad memories, triggered a nationalist reflex which proved stronger than the myriad questions, disappointments and criticisms regarding Arafat's policy. The PLO president's expulsion from Damascus last June was taken as a collective humiliation. The crisis revealed that Arafat's charisma has remained intact. "You can't drive out a symbol," a Fedayeen, albeit a supporter of Abu Musa, conceded to a Western journalist. And the poet Mahmud Darwish had earlier written: "He enjoys our full confidence even when we criticize him . . . he is our leader and the symbol of our contemporary history . . . . he dwells in our dreams and our hearts." Above all, the Palestinians demonstrated their will for unity, since in their eyes the PLO, for all its errors, weaknesses and failures, remains the sole instrument with a chance of one day satisfying their national aspirations. Within this perspective, it is not surprising that a poll conducted this July in the occupied territories, with the approval of the Israeli military authorities, found that 92 percent of the Palestinians supported Arafat as supreme leader of the Palestinian movement against the Fatah dissidents and their Syrian-Libyan allies.
Which is not to say that Yassir Arafat can rest comfortably. It is true that he has concentrated most of the loyalist Fedayeen in northern Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli, and that he can count to a certain extent on the support of the generally pro-Palestinian local population. As PLO president, he also benefits from the sympathy of many foreign governments-both in the West and elsewhere-which for all their reservations prefer him to his adversaries. But he has had ample occasion to ponder the limitations or ineffectiveness of these sympathies. The first disappointment, though predictable enough, was that the Arab states sat back and watched, either with sympathy or with glee, the crisis of the PLO. Those who hoped for its weakening or destruction simply waited, as they had done during the Lebanese war the previous summer. The others, notably Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Kuwait, confined themselves to timid and futile mediation attempts.
The second disappointment, less expected, was that the U.S.S.R., after addressing three messages of support to the PLO president, suddenly was heard from no more. Yuri Andropov undoubtedly had not appreciated Arafat's negotiations with King Hussein or his allusions to the "positive aspects" of the Reagan Plan, but he had even more reason to be wary of the Fatah dissidents, whose Marxist "leftism" was seen in Moscow as an "adventurism" more dangerous than Arafat's pragmatism, especially since the latter was surrounded by men anxious to preserve and develop at all costs the "strategic alliance" between the PLO and the U.S.S.R.
There is no question that up until the last-minute cancellation of Yassir Arafat's Moscow visit planned for July 15, Mr. Andropov had tried to help the PLO leader. No convincing reason for the cancellation was offered on either side, but it is probable that President Andropov simply gave in to pressure from President Assad, who would not hear of a Soviet mediation between the Syrians and the Palestinians. And in any case, how could the Kremlin intervene when, on the one hand, the Syrian press was insisting that the Baathist regime was in no way implicated in the "inter-Palestinian" conflict, and, on the other, that Yassir Arafat was nothing but a "blackmailer," an "advocate of the Camp David Accords," and a "traitor." It seems obvious that, forced to choose between Arafat and Syria, Moscow would choose Syria because of the latter's strategic importance in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The Palestinian leaders are well placed to understand such reasoning, even if they don't approve of it. Like it or not, they too acknowledge the crucial nature of Syria's role. Syria is the only Arab state which declares itself prepared to resist the Jewish state and America's "hegemonic designs," the only one which provides them with an operational base, thanks to its proximity to Lebanon, the occupied territories, and Jordan, which between them account for three-fourths of the Palestinian people. And, finally, it is through Syria that Soviet arms for the Fedayeen are channeled.
Seen from this perspective, there is no reason to doubt Yassir Arafat's sincerity when he says, as he did last February during a closed-door session of the Palestinian National Council: "Our strategic alliance with Syria is crucial. What would become of us without the sanctuary it provides us on Israel's borders? I say to you without shame: if the Damascus government threw me out the door, I would come back through the window; if the window were locked, I would dig a tunnel to get back into the country."
This conviction, shared by all the PLO leaders, has contributed to preserving the organization's unity during the first months of the crisis. In fact, the main organizations comprising the PLO, particularly the Popular Front of George Habash and the Democratic Front of Nayef Hawatmeh, have stood by Yassir Arafat on condition that he pursue the dialogue with Damascus and undertake "democratic reforms" liable to satisfy the demands of the Fatah dissidents (which both organizations recognize as being well founded). Which accounts for the relatively conciliatory attitude of Yassir Arafat, who has implicitly agreed to reduce his "personal power" while giving the go-head to successive mediation missions.
Syria, too, has avoided committing the irreparable, conscious of the risks involved in a total rupture with the PLO, which would discredit it in Arab and particularly Palestinian eyes. The Palestinians, some 300,000 of whom live in Syria, could undermine the stability of the Baathist regime, for example by lending a hand to the Muslim Brotherhood or other movements opposing President Assad's rule. After all, didn't they serve as catalysts for the oppositional forces in Jordan during the 1960s and then later in Lebanon? And aren't they still capable of carrying out assassinations or other actions against Syrian government figures and institutions-a threat which has been mentioned in Arafat's entourage? And even if there is a split, what credibility could a PLO entirely controlled by Damascus possibly have?
Taking into consideration the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Syrian chief of state and the PLO president, logic would seem to condemn them to a modus vivendi. The problem is how to reconcile the irreconcilable-the will of the first to control the Palestinian movement, and the determination of the second to defend his people's right to autonomous decision. As the summer of 1983 draws to a close, this is the major obstacle preventing the successful conclusion of the various mediation attempts. Nonetheless, if it were necessary to place bets on the future, one would perhaps not be far off in suggesting a compromise under which Yassir Arafat's freedom of action would be curtailed but not suppressed. He would remain at the head of the PLO, into whose ranks the dissidents would be reintegrated, but in exchange he would be compelled to harmonize his diplomacy with that of Hafez al-Assad, in hopes of better days ahead.