The divided Palestine Liberation Organization convened its "parliament in exile" here tonight and was urged by King Hussein of Jordan to put aside its internal differences and forge a joint Jordanian-Palestinian initiative for a peace settlement with Israel.
Addressing the opening session of the 17th meeting of the Palestine National Council, Hussein politely scolded the PLO and the Arab world in general for wasting time and energy on "disagreement, conflict and recrimination."
"The question is: For how long will we allow time to serve a greedy enemy who every day eats up part of the remaining land while we dissipate our time in fruitless argument and recrimination?" Hussein asked.
While emphasizing that the decision belonged to the PLO alone, the king reiterated his call for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian initiative to convene an international peace conference under U.N. auspices. The basis of peace talks, he said, should be U.N. Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for recognition and a peace agreement with its Arab neighbors.
There was no immediate reaction from any of the factions of the PLO to Hussein's proposal.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has shown much greater readiness to embrace a diplomatic solution in the Middle East than his more radical opponents within the PLO, who insist on the primacy of armed struggle. An earlier attempt to reach a joint Jordanian-PLO strategy collapsed in April of last year because of the opposition of PLO hard-liners.
Hussein and Arafat, who spoke immediately before the Jordanian monarch, were warmly received by more than 200 delegates and hundreds of observers in the King Hussein Sports Center. But the meeting, considered one of the most critical in the PLO's turbulent history, underscored the divisions in the organization because of the absence of several groups that have been part of the overall PLO umbrella.
These included the Syrian-backed PLO rebels who forced Arafat and his men out of Lebanon last year and who have called for Arafat's ouster. The meeting also was boycotted by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine headed by Nayef Hawatmeh.
These groups are highly critical of Arafat's leadership, but have also sought a reconciliation between his mainline PLO organization, Fatah, and the Syrian-supported rebels.
Officials of Fatah, however, declared that there was the necessary quorum of two-thirds of the 384 delegates as the conference opened amid extraordinary security measures by the Jordanians. Streets leading to the Sports Center were blocked by Jordanian soldiers. The meeting place was guarded by soldiers in jeeps armed with machine guns while a military helicopter circled overhead. For the beleaguered Arafat, the convening of the session represented a chance to reaffirm his leadership of the Palestinian movement against his Syrian-supported critics. Speaking from a stage on which large Jordanian and Palestinian flags were draped, he used his opening address to set a tone for the meeting, which is expected to last about six days.
Arafat defended his leadership of the PLO, particularly his decision to visit Egypt immediately after his expulsion from Tripoli, Lebanon, by the rebel forces. The decision has become a focal point for his critics. Echoing a constant theme of Hussein, who recently reestablished diplomatic relations with Egypt, Arafat said that despite Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptians must be welcomed back into the Arab world.
The PLO leader also struck a somewhat moderate tone toward Syria, saying that while attempts to reconcile his differences with Syrian President Hafez Assad so far have failed, the effort still is going on.
Arafat said the most important function of the 17th Palestine National Council meeting is to reaffirm the independence of the PLO and its institutions, a clear reference to what Fatah officials see as Syria's attempt to turn the organzation into a Syrian puppet. The atmosphere of the opening meeting here tonight was filled with emotion and the symbolism of the Jordanian-PLO relationship coming full circle. Fourteen years ago, in what the Palestinians refer to as the "Black September" of 1970, the Jordanian Army expelled the PLO from Jordan in a series of bitter battles, leading to the establishment of the PLO's new base in southern Lebanon. Tonight, soldiers of the same Army guarded the approaches to the Sports Center where Arafat and his followers were meeting.
After his speech, Arafat returned to the first row of seats in the Sports Center, where he embraced Hussein.
In his speech, Hussein struck a familiar theme -- that time rapidly is running out on Arab hopes of regaining the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that this fact should be faced realistically. To suggest that regaining the territory will be accomplished by future Arab generations, he said, is a "clear abdication of responsibility."
Hussein urged the PLO to take "a fresh look and a new approach" and to remember that "there is no place for slogans if they are turned into constraints preventing motion or maneuver."
If the situation now facing the Arabs is "bleak," Hussein said, it was because "we failed to strike a balance between the justice of our cause and our physical and strategic capabilities, with a view to reducing the effects of America's unquestioned support for Israel."
Hussein did not refer directly to Syria, but clearly had the Syrians in mind when he criticized "some of our Arab brethren for encouraging the dissensionist movement in the PLO in the name of reform."