TUNIS, Tunisia — PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is in the middle of a growing firestorm as he attempts to salvage flagging peace talks with Israel and fight off an unprecedented leadership challenge from his closest, most trusted advisers.
Already facing opposition to his peace accord with Israel from radical groups and Palestinians living outside the occupied territories, Arafat is now facing serious criticism from his own top lieutenants, including Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Maazen), the architect of the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiations with Israel, and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, perhaps Arafat's closest adviser.
As an unusual and probably turbulent PLO executive committee meeting opens today, Arafat's key advisers are demanding important democratic reforms and accusing the PLO chairman of maintaining a lock on power that betrays the trust imparted to him as president of the nascent Palestinian state.
Privately, some PLO officials say Arafat has hampered the peace talks with Israel by holding the Palestinian negotiating team to unrealistic proposals, a strategy they say is designed to allow him to step in at the last moment and claim credit for saving the talks.
The PLO said Thursday that it had reached an impasse in the latest round of talks aimed at implementing a peace accord under which Israeli troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank vicinity of Jericho on Dec. 13. With the deadline looming for completing the implementation talks, the PLO appealed for U.S. intervention to get the talks back on track.
"The PLO warns that the Israeli practices and policies, which deserve strong disapproval and condemnation, need the urgent intervention of the co-sponsors of the peace process and the international community to guarantee implementation of the agreement," an official PLO statement said.
The statement was issued after a two-day meeting of the PLO leadership and the central committee of Fatah, Arafat's own political faction, which is the largest component of the PLO. But the leadership meeting was not attended by three key members of Arafat's camp: Abbas, Abed-Rabbo and Suleiman Najjab. They have drafted a memorandum complaining about the PLO chairman's autocratic leadership style, his failure to consult his advisers on key decisions and the lack of democracy within the PLO as it approaches the most critical juncture in its history, the government of a Palestinian state-in-the-making.
At least three other members of the executive committee originally planned to sign the memo, a move that would have cost Arafat his majority in the PLO's Cabinet-in-exile. But the fact that Abbas and Abed-Rabbo are willing to openly challenge Arafat is stunning in itself. It was Abbas, a founding member of Fatah, who signed the Declaration of Principles with Israel in Washington on Sept. 13.
"If these men turn against Arafat now, it's an indication of how far things have deteriorated," said one PLO source, who asked not to be identified.
In fact, neither man is challenging the PLO's commitment to the peace agreement with Israel. Rather, they are said to be unhappy with the way the PLO chairman has managed the talks to implement it and with plans for a Palestinian government to manage the occupied territories in which Arafat appears to be seeking to maintain a single-handed hold on important decision-making.
In their memorandum, the advisers "basically said we are responsible for all of this, because we have allowed you to operate unilaterally all these years. But now we have found that you have taken over everything, and we cannot allow it to continue," said a PLO source familiar with the document.
There are complaints in some circles that the peace talks, held in Cairo, have stalled in part because Arafat has forced his negotiating team to maintain unrealistic principles with an eye toward intervening himself to salvage the agreement in a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
The PLO on Thursday denied reports that Arafat had reached a secret agreement with an Israeli envoy who traveled to Tunis this week to delay the Dec. 13 deadline for completing an agreement and beginning the Israeli withdrawal. The PLO has insisted that the Dec. 13 deadline remains crucial and non-negotiable.