A Palestine Liberation Organization delegation met today with Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam in a new attempt to end the bitter two-month-old fight within chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian nationalist movement.
The three-hour session between Khaddam and the six-man PLO executive committee delegation apparently failed to make any significant progress toward resolving the split within Arafat's Fatah organization that increasingly threatens to destroy the credibility and prestige of the PLO, of which Fatah is the dominant faction.
"We are doing something, but not much," said a dejected Khaled Fahoum, head of the PLO delegation, after his talks with Khaddam today.
Fahoum, the speaker of the Palestine National Congress, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile, officially termed the talks "very constructive" but he admitted that work to heal the embarrassing split in Arafat's ranks "will take some time."
That the Fahoum delegation's mediation efforts had made little progress was confirmed in Tunisia, Arafat's headquarters since his expulsion from Beirut last summer during Israel's siege of the city. Salah Khalaf, one of Arafat's closest aides, told reporters there that so far the PLO delegation's efforts had gone "nowhere."
Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, said Arafat would go to Moscow, along with Fahoum, early next week to discuss the dissension in the Palestinian ranks with Kremlin officials. Moscow, although a major backer of the Syrian regime that is allied against Arafat, has openly backed the PLO leader in recent weeks against the Syrian-supported mutineers challenging his authority.
At the heart of the dispute was what Arafat's rivals called his autocratic leadership and his cautious attempts to steer the PLO toward diplomatic rather than military initiatives.
While the schism in Fatah is repeatedly presented as an internal Palestinian matter, the personal feud between Arafat, the PLO leader seeking to keep his movement responding solely to Palestinian interests, and Syrian President Hafez Assad, who hopes to harness it as part of Syria's foreign policy, has become the major issue in the dispute. This was made evident by the PLO mediation commission's focus on holding talks with Syrian officials as well as Fatah dissidents.
The anti-Arafat rebels insist that their movement is an independent, grass-roots protest within Fatah.
But the evidence as viewed by western analysts here in Damascus is that they have been encouraged, supported, and possibly even directed, by Assad's government. Assad resented Arafat's criticism of the absence of Syrian support for the PLO during the war with Israel in Lebanon last year, Arafat's refusal to move the PLO headquarters to Damascus after the evacuation of Beirut, and Arafat's flirtation with diplomatic solutions that Syria fears ignore its interest in the Middle East.
Rebel representatives insisted this week that before any resolution of the conflict could take place, Arafat must reject the moderate, compromising policies he has become identified with since leaving Beirut.
While officially maintaining they did not actually seek Arafat's removal as head of Fatah, they made it clear in interviews and public statements that they want a collective, not personal, leadership of their movement. They also want Arafat to return to his movement's past commitment to "armed struggle" rather than the seeking of diplomatic compromises with Israel.
PLO officials here in the Syrian capital say they are depressed and dejected about the prospects of a quick resolution to the dispute that threatens the movement they forged in the 18 years since the PLO was constituted as an umbrella organization for the various Palestinian movements seeking to oppose the creation of the Jewish state of Israel on a land they considered their own traditional homeland.
This pessimism is based on the depths of the personal feud between Assad and Arafat, which resulted in the expulsion of Arafat from Syria last month after he openly accused Assad's government of supporting and encouraging the rebellion within Fatah as a means of trying to topple him from the leadership of the PLO.
According to PLO sources, Arafat has insisted that Syria agree to a reconciliation and his return to Syria and the Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon before a compromise with the rebels is worked out. Assad, however, has insisted that Arafat publicly apologize for his attacks on Syria as a condition for any reconciliation.
With neither side showing any signs of compromise, the deadlock between the factions of the Palestinian movement has grown--although a cease-fire between warring units has now held for almost a week.