The Palestine Liberation Organization, in a rebuke to Yasser Arafat, decided Saturday to press Israel much harder to carry out its promised military pullback in the occupied West Bank and extend Palestinian self-government throughout the region.
In a raucous meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, the group's leadership demanded that the PLO chairman get tougher in his negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and it replaced his chief negotiator with an official sharply critical of the way Arafat has implemented the basic agreement with Israel.
After debating the suspension of negotiations, a move that had been demanded by hard-liners, the PLO's Executive Committee finally agreed to continue them but with a "different strategy" and a new negotiating team, officials said.
"This means Arafat will maintain his leadership intact but that he will have to share decision-making with other leaders," a PLO official said by telephone after four days of meetings at the Tunis headquarters. "Abu Amar (Arafat) is accepting the counsel of the other leaders on the course of the peace process and their criticism of its conduct in recent months."
To win support for continuing the negotiations, Arafat agreed to a compromise in which they will be largely conducted by a team led by Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Maazen, who signed the 1993 agreement on Palestinian autonomy but has strongly criticized Arafat's implementation of it.
"This is a return to previous plans for improving the Palestinian negotiating performance through a clear program of goals and to constitute a reference body to oversee the negotiations," said Suleiman Najjab, a member of the Executive Committee. "One person should not hold the fate of the Palestinian nation in his hands."
Arafat's leadership was not in real jeopardy, other officials said, but he had come under increasingly severe criticism--both from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and from others still in exile--for the slowness in which the autonomy agreement with Israel is being implemented.
Under that accord, Israeli forces had been scheduled to withdraw from West Bank towns and villages before Palestinian elections originally planned for last July. The elections are now expected in September, more than a year late, following an Israeli pullback over the summer. But even this timetable is not certain, because Rabin has imposed security requirements before proceeding.
What leverage the dissident leaders believe Arafat and the PLO have to force Rabin's hand is unclear. Any Palestinian suspension of the negotiations on elections and redeployment would simply achieve what Israeli opponents of the accord want, and total collapse of the peace process would probably cost Palestinians more in the immediate term than it would Israelis.
But members of the Executive Committee and Arafat's Fatah movement, the major group within the PLO, harshly criticized Arafat for a lack of firmness in the ongoing negotiations with Rabin, contending that he has allowed Israel to undermine the basic accord.
"There was strong sentiment for suspending the negotiations until Israel fulfilled all its earlier commitments, but Chairman Arafat persuaded us to allow him to continue despite the impasse," Najjab said. "What we have then is a compromise between his position and ours."
The meeting marked the first time that exiled Palestinian leaders still based in Tunis had taken part in Fatah meetings since Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip last June, and it reflected the PLO leader's need to broaden his political base and to dampen criticism of the Palestinian Authority that he heads.
As a result of the compromise reached after hours of angry debate, Arafat's ability to maneuver, both in the negotiations with Israel and in his administration of the Palestinian territories, has been trimmed, according to Palestinian observers, because he will no longer have unchallenged power to make decisions alone.
Arafat, however, may also welcome his critics' show of strength, these PLO insiders suggested, because he can now point to his opposition--as Rabin often does--in negotiations with Israel to justify a tougher position.
The arguments at an overnight session grew so heated at one point that Arafat's security guards, alarmed to hear their chief shouting, burst into the conference room, according to PLO sources, but left when he calmed down.
Mohammed Jihad, a senior Fatah official, was objecting strongly at the time to what he called the "repression" in the Gaza Strip of militant Islamic groups by Palestinian police operating on Arafat's orders--and in response to Israel's demand for a crackdown on Muslim radicals held responsible for terrorist attacks within Israel.
Under Arafat's direction, Jihad reportedly asserted, the Palestinian police are turning into new oppressors in Gaza. "Security officials are behaving badly with the Palestinian people, who have suffered from Israel's occupation," he said. "The Israelis are pushing us toward a Palestinian civil war so they can have a pretext for maintaining their occupation of the West Bank."
Abbas, although an architect of the September, 1993, peace accord between the PLO and Israel, recently joined other PLO leaders still in exile in calling for the suspension of the current talks with Israel, asserting that Palestinians are conceding too much to get what Israel has already promised.
He will replace Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority's planning minister, as the chief PLO negotiator. The ebullient Shaath was criticized as too soft in dealing with the Israelis, too optimistic in his forecasts of progress and too interested in personal publicity.