An Israeli official contended Wednesday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat bore direct responsibility for the hijacking of an Italian luxury liner, but some Middle East experts saw no evidence of his involvement except to help end the crisis.
Arafat's Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed it was instrumental in bringing an end to the two-day ordeal by negotiating with the hijackers, apparently members of a PLO splinter group whose links to Fatah, the mainstream PLO group, were unclear.
'They'll do everything to put an end to it,' a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem said of Arafat's group only a few hours before the hijacking ended outside Port Said, Egypt. 'That's a sign they were involved. They have leverage over them (the hijackers).'
The Israeli, speaking on grounds that he not be identified, scoffed at Arafat's denial of involvement in Monday's hijacking of the cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, with 511 hostages aboard.
'When is it convenient for Arafat to say he has control over the Palestinians, and when doesn't he?' the official said. 'When it comes to propaganda over politics and diplomatic negotiations, he refers to himself as the unquestioned leader.'
The Egyptian charge d'affaires in Israel, Mohammed Bassiouni, contended that Arafat had nothing to do with hijacking the ship from Italy, a country with which the PLO has traditionally enjoyed friendly relations and which Arafat has recently developed particularly close ties.
'For sure it is not Arafat,' Bassiouni told reporters in Israel. 'It is unlikely that Arafat would act against a government which supported him so strongly after the Israeli raid in Tunis.'
James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, also doubted that Arafat supporters would have staged an attack against Italian interests because of the PLO's ties with Italy, which strongly condemned Israel's air raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunisia last week.
'Relations between the PLO and Italy are very close and something the PLO wants very much to protect,' he said.
Christine Helms, a Middle East analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, speculated that the hijackers were 'free-lancers' who, although connected with a Palestinian group, seized the ship almost on the spur of the moment 'with little planning or a real agenda.'
'Quite apart from attempts to scuttle the Hussein-Arafat peace plan like other Palestinian or Shiite Moslem groups in the region, they could have found the Israeli bombing of Tunis so reprehensible that it provoked a response which really was not very well thought out,' she said.
Zogby and other experts said the hijacking apparently was done by an extremist Palestinian group trying to discredit Arafat, who teamed up with Jordanian King Hussein last February in what they said was an effort to seek peace with Israel.
One of three factions of the Palestine Liberation Front, which broke away from the mainstream PLO several years ago, is believed to have been behind the hijacking of the Italian ship.
'I see no reason to doubt that it was them,' Zogby said. 'There are extremists in the Palestinian camp, like them, who have come full circle and joined with the extremists in Israel, all of whom want to destroy any chance for peace.'
Bassiouni agreed, saying the hijacking 'was done by enemies of the peace.' But, he cautioned, 'I cannot say until the whole thing is over who they really are.'
Israeli officials in Jerusalem said that, according to their sources, the hijackers belonged to the faction of the Palestine Liberation Front headed by a Mohammed 'Abu' Abbas -- an Arafat loyalist.
'Arafat is one way or another responsible,' one Israeli official said. 'Abu Abbas is totally under his influence.'