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Arafat Takes Charge


Yasser Arafat's triumphal visit to Gaza and oath-taking in Jericho launched the autonomous but non-sovereign state of Palestine. His immediate departure to Paris for talks with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel maintained the momentum toward incorporating the West Bank into the new entity.

But the potential for internal conflict is all too apparent. Every sovereign Arab state is a strongman's stronghold, be he monarch or general, traditionalist or Marxist. Mr. Arafat shows every sign of expecting to be that strongman.

But in the West Bank, particularly, are middle class Palestinians and intelligentsia who never went into exile, who lived under Israeli occupation, who observed participation in Israel's domestic affairs, and who expect to have a say in their own new order. And in Gaza, where deprivation was greater, the rejectionist Hamas, which repudiates the agreement under which elections may be held, rivals Mr. Arafat's PLO.

One of the ironies to the Arafat-Rabin partnership had Mr. Arafademanding Israel release Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas. Israel insists all 6,000 Arab prisoners it still holds renounce violence to obtain their freedom. The paralyzed Sheik Yassin will not.

To cater to Palestinian public opinion, Mr. Arafat must demand release of a rallying figure for those who would depose Mr. Arafat. If only to protect Mr. Arafat, Israel does not dare oblige him.

And in his major speech in Gaza, Mr. Arafat denounced the big donor nations whose funds will finance his state. He made it a point of national sovereignty-in-embryo that his council will not be held accountable for funds given it. Yet he must know that without accountability there will be no funds to pay his police.

For centuries, a celebrated class of beggars called schnorrers won charity from the Jewish diaspora to underwrite the Jewish presence in the Holy Land. For decades, modern Israel worried about being a schnorrer state. Now Israel's former arch-enemy is establishing a schnorrer regime in the Arab world, and writhing under the constraints. Mr. Arafat may win popularity briefly by biting hands that feed Palestine, but no policy could be more counter-productive for the long haul.

Mr. Arafat is head of this non-sovereign state, but must be ratified by election. Israel is demanding that election. Mr. Arafat is coy about timing. The vote will give the Palestinians of the

West Bank and Gaza a chance to depose the one man indispensable to the autonomy they cherish.

So far, only the easiest questions have been resolved between the PLO and Israel. The toughest, like sovereign status, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem, are saved for 1996. No one ever said Palestinian autonomy would be easy. But it is going a little better than was generally expected.

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