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PLO Gives Arafat New Title: President

Times Staff Writer

Not everyone may be ready to accept it, but as far as the Palestine Liberation Organization is concerned, it’s now President Arafat.

The PLO Executive Committee, meeting throughout the night, voted Sunday morning in Tunis to elect PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat president of the yet unborn Palestinian state, whose “independence” was proclaimed at a meeting of the Palestine National Council last November.

Abdel-Hamid Sayegh, chairman of the council, which serves as the PLO’s parliament in exile, said in Tunis that the vote for Arafat, who ran unopposed, was unanimous.

The PLO leader, he said, will retain his position and duties as chairman of the guerrilla organization but will henceforth also be considered president of the yet-to-be formed Palestinian provisional government.

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More Than a Symbol

While Palestinian sources conceded that Arafat’s election as head of a still hypothetical Palestinian state was of little practical consequence at the moment, they said its significance is still more than merely symbolic.

One aim of the maneuver, they said, was to overcome protocol difficulties arising from the PNC’s decision in November to declare an independent Palestinian state. The decision implied that this state should be established in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip but left the question of borders open, pending their negotiation at a U.N.-sponsored peace conference that the PLO hopes Israel will agree to attend.

More than 100 countries have recognized the Palestinian state and upgraded the status of the PLO missions in their capitals to embassies. This has created protocol problems, however, in the absence of a government to appoint the PLO’s new “ambassadors.” Palestinian sources said the decision to name Arafat president was taken to overcome these problems, as well as to make it easier for the PLO leader to communicate with heads of state on a diplomatically more equal footing.

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The sources said they hope the decision will also help bolster the PLO’s claim to set up an independent state at a time when its diplomatic drive to gain wider recognition seems to be flagging.

Arafat-Mitterrand Talks

Crucial to the efforts to maintain this momentum, begun in December when Arafat renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist, are the negotiations that are currently under way for a meeting between Arafat and French President Francois Mitterrand, the sources added. If that meeting comes off, it will be Arafat’s first with a major Western head of state.

Arab diplomats in Cairo noted that efforts are also under way to try to upgrade the dialogue that the United States opened with the PLO last December by arranging a meeting between Arafat and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. The prospects for that meeting are slimmer, however.

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The Palestine National Council, when it met in Algiers in November, empowered the 77-member Central Council to establish a “provisional government” for the newly declared Palestinian state on paper. But subsequent attempts to do so have been stymied by differences within the PLO’s rival factions over representation in the government.

These rivalries were apparent at the latest Executive Committee meeting, where PLO sources said the debate was heated, with two hard-line groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, criticizing Arafat for offering what they consider to be unacceptable concessions.

The sources said the two groups particularly objected to Arafat’s offer, made last month, to go to Jerusalem to negotiate directly with the Israeli leadership. The offer was rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who refuses to negotiate with the PLO and who said that Arafat would be arrested and sent to prison as a terrorist if he set foot in Israel.


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