Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, suggested Tuesday that a compromise is possible as a means of clearing the way for talks between the United States and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Arafat indicated that he is prepared to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which guarantees Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, if the United States at the same time endorses the idea of “self-determination” for the Palestinians.
“Self-determination is a sacred right,” Arafat declared in an interview with the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
Arafat has flirted in the past with various package deals that entail acceptance of the controversial U.N. resolution, adopted in 1967, but in the end he has always adroitly avoided making any commitment on the question of Israel’s rights in a peace settlement.
Arafat remained vague in defining what he means by Palestinian “self-determination,” a concept that has been open to widely differing interpretations in recent years.
One common definition, which holds that the phrase requires the creation of an independent state for Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River, has been consistently rejected by the Reagan Administration. The West Bank has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War.
Arafat has consistently refused to accept Resolution 242 because it refers to the Palestinians only as refugees.
The PLO chairman, wearing his familiar olive-drab army fatigues and checkered headcloth, spoke to the reporters at the Royal Jordanian Guest Palace the day after Secretary of State George P. Shultz left this country’s resort of Aqaba after two days of talks with King Hussein of Jordan.
A Western diplomat said Arafat’s proposed compromise appears to represent a conciliatory gesture but is probably too small a step to win over the Reagan Administration.
The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said Arafat is being increasingly squeezed by Hussein, who is anxious to get the talks moving, and by more militant members of the PLO who feel that Arafat has already made too many concessions in the efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.
After a written agreement with Arafat on Feb. 11, Hussein has attempted to arrange a meeting between Reagan Administration officials and a joint delegation of Jordanian and Palestinians as a first step toward negotiating a Mideast settlement.
Refusing to Meet
The United States has refused to meet with the PLO until it accepts Resolution 242 and Israel’s right to exist. Alternatively, Washington has proposed, as an initial step, a meeting with a delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians who are not members of the PLO.
Although there have been reports that Jordan has submitted to Washington a list of Palestinians who might be acceptable to all the parties as members of a joint delegation, the PLO has denied approving any names.
“The basic principle remains that the PLO will have to make the choice,” Mohammed Milhelm, a member of the PLO’s 11-member Executive Committee, said. “Once the principle is approved, the names are not that important.”
Arafat said that Milhelm, a former West Bank mayor who joined the PLO only last November, has attempted to arrange a meeting with Shultz but has been rebuffed. The United States follows a practice, originated by Henry A. Kissinger when he was secretary of state, of refusing to hold direct talks with PLO officials.
One basis for a compromise that had been discussed was the selection of Palestinians who serve in the Palestine National Council, which the Palestinians call their parliament-in-exile. Heretofore, the United States has not considered members of the council to be members of the PLO.
However, in what one analyst called a “brilliant preemptive strike,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir announced during Shultz’s visit to Jerusalem on Friday that the Palestine National Council members are as unacceptable to Israel as PLO members are.
While it is not clear whether the United States will adopt a similar position, a senior official in Shultz’s party acknowledged to reporters that the issue of the council members has become contentious.
Arafat repeatedly criticized the Reagan Administration as being shortsighted for placing conditions on a possible meeting with the PLO. “You even accept self-determination for the residents of the Falkland Islands,” Arafat said. “Such behavior from a superpower is very unfair.”
The closest that the Administration has come so far to meeting the Palestinian demands about self-determination occurred April 30 in a little-noticed press briefing.
State Department spokesman Edward P. Djerejian told reporters, “The United States believes that the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people should be addressed in any agreement regarding the final status of the West Bank and Gaza.”
Djerejian said the Administration believes that the “full manner in which those rights will be exercised will become clear as the process of negotiations proceeds.”
Separate State Opposed
He reiterated the Administration’s opposition to the formation of an independent Palestinian state. The United States has supported the idea of “self-government” by the Palestinians in association with Jordan.
Asked if he would explicitly accept Israel’s right to exist if the United States acknowledges a Palestinian right of self-determination, Arafat replied, “I would accept all the international legality.”
He was asked if he would accept self-determination in the framework of the Feb. 11 agreement he signed with Hussein, which envisaged the formation of the “confederated Arab states of Jordan and Palestine.”
“Of course. Why not?” Arafat said. “Let me feel you (the United States) are behind my rights.”
‘The Last Chance’
Arafat said in the interview that he believes the peace process has only until the end of the year to gain momentum or it will irrevocably fail. “I call this the last chance,” he said, speaking in English.
The proposed package deal trading PLO recognition of Israel for an American declaration on Palestinian self-determination was reportedly one of the decisions reached at a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee last month in Baghdad, Iraq.
Arafat is believed to have come under sharp criticism at the meeting for failing to wring any concessions from the Americans in return for the PLO’s decision to sign the Feb. 11 agreement with Jordan.
At one point in Baghdad, Arafat is said to have also lost a key vote in a meeting of the Central Committee of Fatah, the main wing of the PLO which Arafat also heads.
Pressure From Hussein
While such intense criticism has led Arafat in the past to suddenly alter course, Hussein has reportedly brought Arafat under strong pressure to reach an accommodation before the king visits Washington at the end of this month.
Salah Khalaf, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, charged Monday in Tunis, Tunisia, that Hussein is preparing to unilaterally declare a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation that would negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank.
Although the accusation was immediately denied by both the PLO and the Jordanians, the existence of such rumors at high levels of the PLO suggests the degree to which the organization is now divided.