26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A shot in the armBy Khaled Dawoud
for final status
Following two days of talks in Cairo between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Damascus-based group is soon expected to revive its activity in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after six years of boycott. Arafat met briefly in Amman with Hawatmeh during King Hussein's funeral in February, but their meeting in Cairo saw their first extended talks in six years.
The other key opposition group based in Damascus, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) led by George Habash, is expected to take a similar position and revive its membership in the PLO bodies, starting with the Executive Committee, according to Palestinian sources. A delegation representing the PFLP met Arafat in early August to reunite Palestinian ranks. The PFLP's deputy secretary-general, Abu Ali Mustafa, led the delegation.
Besides his position as Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Arafat is also chairman of Fateh, the PLO's main faction.
Hawatmeh and Arafat warmly greeting each other before starting their talks in Cairo. It was their first extended meeting since Hawatmeh rejected the 1993 Oslo Accords
El-Tayeb Abdel-Rehim, a high-ranking Fateh and PA member, told reporters that a meeting was also due to take place soon in Ramallah, the West Bank, grouping all Palestinian factions, including the two Islamist groups, Hamas and Jihad, in order to initiate a national Palestinian dialogue. Abdel-Rehim said the meeting was originally scheduled to take place today (Thursday), "but it has been postponed upon the request of our brothers at the DFLP until after the meeting of their politburo in the coming days."
DFLP politburo member, Qeis Abdel-Kerim, known as Abu Laila, told reporters that his group was due to take a decision on the restoration of its membership in the PLO "within two weeks in light of the positive results achieved in this dialogue".
The acceptance of both the DFLP and the PFLP to rejoin the PLO's Executive Committee is expected to strengthen Arafat's position ahead of final settlement talks with Israel. Syrian officials, following the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also informed the Damascus-based opposition groups that their country was serious about its desire to reach a peaceful settlement with Israel.
Syrian Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam reportedly advised three leaders of Palestinian opposition groups, Khaled El-Fahoum, Essam El-Qadi and Talal Nagi, "to turn into political opposition groups", rather than persistently calling for armed struggle against Israel, DFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview.
The DFLP and PFLP were among the main factions that joined the PLO in the late 1960s together with Arafat's Fateh. However, after Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel, Habash, Hawatmeh and several other Palestinian opposition leaders suspended their membership in the PLO and moved to Damascus. They accused Arafat of monopolising decision-making and accepting an agreement that fell short of legitimate Palestinian demands.
Arafat then moved on to self-rule, became PA president and restructured the PLO in a way that guaranteed Fateh's total control over all its bodies. Hawatmeh denied that there was a sudden veering in his position towards Arafat or in his opposition to the Oslo agreement.
"We were the first Palestinian group to call for national dialogue in February 1997 after it became clear that Oslo was a failure," Hawatmeh told the Weekly. "I was expected to meet Arafat in Cairo in March 1999, but the political and bloody war which was waged against us by the 'rejection front' in Lebanon's [refugee] camps forced us to delay this meeting."
During King Hussein's funeral, Hawatmeh for the first time shook hands with an Israeli official, President Ezer Weizman, and was sharply criticised by a gathering of Damascus-based Palestinian opposition groups, known as the Group of Ten. The DFLP's membership in this front was suspended and there have been reports since then that Hawatmeh might soon move to Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza.
A DFLP official who took part in the talks with the Fateh faction led by Arafat told the Weekly on condition of anonymity that Hawatmeh "was also considering settling in Cairo in case the Israeli authorities refused to give him permission to enter self-rule areas."
Both the DFLP and PFLP officials, who recently met Arafat in Cairo, now hold that "Oslo has become an issue of the past that we must put behind our backs. We must now think of the future," said Abu Laila. "We are aware that Oslo has its consequences on the ground, but as final settlement talks are expected to start soon, we cannot let one Palestinian faction take decisions unilaterally on important issues like Jerusalem, the return of refugees, the future of settlements, borders and water," he added.
The 1993 Oslo deal defined a five-year interim period after which a final settlement should have been reached by 4 May 1999.
Arafat threatened to declare an independent Palestinian state by 4 May after failure to reach a settlement with Israel. However, he bowed to US and world pressure to postpone this move in order not to create any problems that might have strengthened former Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu's chances of winning the Israeli general elections of 17 May.
In their talks with Fateh, Hawatmeh and the DFLP delegation called for the immediate declaration of a Palestinian state. They also called for holding a referendum for the Palestinian people in self-rule areas and in exile on any final settlement deals reached with Israel.
Fateh welcomed both proposals, and a decision was taken to refer them to the PLO Executive Committee for further discussions, according to the final statement issued after the meeting. But PA officials later said they believed such proposals "are not practical at the present time".
Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath said, "This is a difficult proposal to implement right now without the acceptance of the countries hosting Palestinian refugees like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. This issue might cause problems."
The final statement issued by Arafat and Hawatmeh called for a "wide national dialogue to crystallise Palestinian positions ahead of final settlement talks".
The statement also reiterated the commitment of Fateh, the DFLP and other Palestinian factions to the basic principles for the settlement of the Palestinian cause: implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 (on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from areas occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem) and 194 on the return of Palestinian refugees; confirmation of the illegitimacy of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory; insistence on Jerusalem as capital of the Palestinian state and the right of the Palestinian people to declare an independent state.
The PLO Executive Committee should also be the main body supervising final settlement talks with Israel, according to the statement. Participants in the dialogue called upon the Committee to "find out the suitable formula that would guarantee the participation of all active parties in these talks." A follow-up committee composed of eight members -- four from each side -- was set up to ensure the implementation of the provisions agreed between the two sides.