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Talking Up Mideast Talks

The question that hangs in the air after the visit to Washington by King Hussein of Jordan is whether the Palestinians--specifically those for whom Yasser Arafat, the embattled chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, says he speaks--are in fact ready to come to terms with Israel. Hussein says that they are, and the United States has indicated that it is conditionally prepared to put this assurance to a test by meeting with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation as a prelude to such a delegation sitting down to negotiate with Israel. The U.S. condition is that the joint delegation can’t include members of the PLO, which remains committed by its covenant to the eradication of Israel.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz sees in all this “an impetus to the process of peacemaking,” and there is always a chance that it can turn out to be just that. Direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab adversaries that have the implicit goals of peace, recognition, territorial compromise on the West Bank and a just settlement of the Palestinian issue are fully in line with President Reagan’s initiative of September, 1982, which remains the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy. Clearly, even a hint of movement toward those goals not only deserves but also demands full exploration.

Just as clearly, though, the exploratory effort faces a series of roadblocks, any one of which could stop progress dead in its tracks. For starters, Hussein must gain Arafat’s acceptance of a joint delegation that is without overt PLO partici-pants--hardly an easy task, given the PLO’s claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The United States, in turn, must win the agreement of a deeply divided and inherently suspicious Israeli government for talks with Palestinians whose sympathies may clearly be with the PLO, even if their names are not inscribed on its membership rolls.

The main message that Hussein carried to Washington is that he has been told by Arafat that the PLO now accepts U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the bases for negotiations with Israel. Essentially, these resolutions call for Arab recognition of Israel’s legitimacy in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory that it occupied in the 1967 war. There is no reason to doubt the king’s word. The problem is that what he says he was told privately by Arafat has never been given public expression. It is not in the communique issued after the Hussein-Arafat talks of last February, it has never been announced as policy by the PLO’s executive committee, and Arafat himself--though often pressed for direct confirmation--has always responded with evasions.

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All of which leaves the significance of the message delivered by Hussein clouded in ambiguity. Does it represent a true opening, or is it essentially an empty gesture, hyped with royal rhetoric but lacking in substance? The next few weeks are likely to see a lot of effort committed to finding an answer.


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