The PLO: Why It’s Hurting the Cause : Palestinians deserve better representation than they get

More than 300,000 Palestinians lived in Kuwait before Iraq invaded last Aug. 2. Perhaps 75,000 remain, although the total may be larger if in fact Iraq has moved thousands of Palestinians into the country to replace Kuwaitis who were killed or fled. The fate of these Palestinians is a matter of concern to Washington. The fear is that when Kuwait City is liberated the Palestinians there could face a blood bath at the hands of vengeful Kuwaitis.

THE PLO’S BLUNDER: Underlying this danger is the monumental political blunder made by the Palestinian leadership--loudest and most visibly by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat--when it endorsed Iraq’s invasion. The coalition of course has an inescapable moral responsibility to protect Palestinians in Kuwait from any lynch-mob retaliation. There must be no repetition of the tragic massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982. But the setback to Palestinians produced by the war goes far beyond the risk confronting those who remain in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states that are part of the anti-Iraq coalition.

Some Palestinian losses are already quantifiable. Iraq’s looting of Kuwait wiped out the savings of Palestinian expatriates along with those of Kuwaitis. It also brought to a dead stop millions in remittance payments that regularly had been sent to families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The jobs long held by Palestinians in Kuwait will some day be restored. But it could be a long time before Palestinians are invited to reclaim them.

It may be even longer before the PLO again starts to see the kind of baksheesh it has come to count on from Saudi Arabia and other fat-cat benefactors. Those generous contributions--protection money, really, to keep PLO-sponsored terrorism from threatening the survival of the monarchies--have made the PLO rich and given its leaders the chance to live in high style. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States indicates that the well has now run dry. Arafat, long accepted by the Saudis as the premier Palestinian statesman, is now dismissed as a “clown.” Even more serious is the threat to make public the extent of Saudi donations to the Palestinian cause that were channeled through the PLO. An honest accounting could validate long-held suspicions that much of that money found its way into the secret bank accounts of some PLO officials.


THE PALESTINIAN ISSUE: The conventional wisdom for some months has been that when the war with Iraq ends, the Palestinian issue would have to find its way to the top of the Mideast’s political agenda. Certainly the need to address this issue--to deal with unresolved questions about the political and human rights and territorial future of the 1.7 million Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation--has grown no less compelling. It has, however, grown even more complicated.

Certainly, Arafat personally and quite possibly the PLO institutionally have lost much of their standing, not only with moderate Arab regimes but among Western European governments and, clearly, in Washington. If Arafat and the PLO continue to claim recognition as the “sole legitimate” voice of the Palestinians, can the Palestinian people truly expect to see their cause progress?

For more than 60 years that cause has been vitiated by a leadership that has habitually opted for no-compromise dogmatism at the expense of conciliation, frequently using assassination to silence moderate opposition voices within Palestinian ranks. Right now, or so appearances suggest, Arafat remains a hero to most Palestinians under Israeli rule. That may be their sincere choice. But what has come to seem inescapable is that the Palestinians will have to do better than that if their legitimate hopes for an equitable political settlement are to be given the chance they deserve.