Arafat alternately defiant, depressed as he vows to continue as PLO leader


TUNIS, Tunisia -- During the Persian Gulf crisis, Yasser Arafat appeared to be conspicuously on the side of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Now that the war is over, Mr. Arafat does not acknowledge that he hurt his cause by appearing to back the losing side, even though his failure to stand by the Kuwaitis has cost the PLO some $100 million in yearly contributions from the gulf states.

To those who have said he should quit in disgrace, he vowed yesterday that he would stay on as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

To those who have urged him to soften his demands toward Israel, he insisted that there could be no peace without Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and establishment of a Palestinian homeland there.

Mr. Arafat seemed at times to maintain a consciously defiant pose in a two-hour interview in a PLO villa, and he asserted that he and the PLO were "more popular than ever" in the wake of the gulf war, despite his embrace of Mr. Hussein.

He rejected assertions that there was widespread unhappiness within and outside his organization over his stance on the war and the quality of his leadership.

"Among our people, we are at a peak; with the Arab masses, at a peak; with the Muslim nation, we're at a peak; and throughout the Third World," Mr. Arafat declared.

Yet, Mr. Arafat's mood and tactics shifted rapidly in the course of the interview. While he referred often to what he described as the American-led "conspiracy against us," he also seemed to make a desperate appeal for American leadership in returning the Palestinians to their "homeland."

But he declined to condemn a terrorist attack by a PLO group on an Israeli beach last year, a refusal that led the United States to suspend its dialogue with the PLO in June 1990. The United States has insisted that the organization condemn the raid.

While exhibiting confidence in his ability and that of his organization to withstand the political pressures and financial travails ahead, he seemed at other moments to sink into despair, apparently fearful that current efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue through negotiation would fail, as have countless previous efforts by a succession of U.S. presidents.

And while he was charming and engaging in his discussion of several questions, he responded angrily and with intense bitterness to others.

For example, he seemed particularly infuriated by what he termed the "double standard" applied to him and the Palestine cause and to other Arab leaders and their demands.

Asked whether his ardent defense of Mr. Hussein had not undermined the credibility of the Palestinian cause, which Palestinians have long maintained was based on the unacceptability of the acquisition of territory by force, Mr. Arafat replied: "I followed my people. It's impossible to be a democrat and not follow the direction of the people. Some people found excuses for King Hussein [of Jordan] because he has Palestinians in his country. OK. I have all of the Palestinians."

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