Within a few weeks, the Palestine Liberation Organization will take two historic steps: It will issue a declaration of independence proclaiming the existence of the state of Palestine; then it will make clear that it seeks resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the lines of a two-state solution.
To put this in perspective, look back 41 years: On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition Palestine (then under British control) into two separate, independent states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arab governments denounced the decision and walked out, pledging to help Palestinian Arabs resist the partition. Six months later, when the state of Israel was declared, its Arab neighbors attacked. The war was brief and ended with Israel gaining considerable territory and Jordan annexing the West Bank, an area that the U.N. partition had earmarked for the Palestinians.
Now, after 40 years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached a point where most of its elements are ripe for resolution. Ten months of intifada-- uprising--in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have convinced the world that the status quo cannot continue. And the PLO is about to come forth with a new political program and a peace initiative.
Astonishingly, though, it is quite possible that through the combined efforts of the Israeli government, the U.S. government and the well-meaning American Jewish community, this one-time-only opportunity will be lost.
The PLO will be offering to begin a process of dialogue and negotiations leading to peace. Common sense suggests that if the PLO seeks to negotiate a settlement, all efforts should be made to bring it to the conference table. But common sense has guided neither U.S. nor Israeli policy for a long time.
Ever since 1975, the United States and Israel have maintained a policy of setting preconditions for negotiations with the PLO. This policy, godfathered by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, received the strong support of the American Jewish Establishment and has been expanded and strengthened.
Today, the U.S. government is unprepared to even enter into dialogue with the PLO unless the PLO accepts--formally, and in advance--U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces terrorism. If it hadn’t been for this policy of preconditions, Middle East peace negotiations with the PLO would have begun long ago.
This policy of advance concessions was designed to be impossible for the PLO to accept, thus keeping the PLO out of negotiations. It was based on the theory that King Hussein of Jordan could act on behalf of the Palestinians. But Hussein renounced Jordan’s claim to the West Bank in July, which buried the so-called Jordanian option.
Fortunately, the PLO has changed, and it is now prepared to meet the longstanding American conditions. Unfortunately, the odds are that American political leaders, rigid in their habit of saying “No to the PLO,” will find ways of continuing to say no.
This is how the Palestinian response to preconditions is likely to emerge in the next few weeks (or sooner):
Acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 338-- The PLO will say, yes, we accept Resolutions 242 and 338 as part of the basis for peace negotiations. But since 242 and 338 deal only with the rights of states and make no mention of Palestinian rights, we accept them joined with the principle of self-determination as the basis for negotiating peace in the Middle East.
This is not an unreasonable position, yet the United States may say that it does not meet the requirement that the Palestinians accept 242 and 338.
Israel’s right to exist-- The PLO will say that in accepting 242, which speaks of the “right to live in peace” of all states in the area, they have accepted Israel’s right to exist. The PLO will further say that they now accept the original U.N. partition resolution of 1947, which served as a basis in international law for the existence of Israel. Indeed, the PLO will probably cite this resolution in their Declaration of Independence, just as it is cited in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, the PLO will not claim all of the territory that the Palestinians were offered in 1947; the question of borders will be left to negotiations.
Again, if anyone wants to take this as satisfying the requirement for recognizing Israel’s right to exist, it is easy to do so.
Renunciation of terrorism-- The PLO will say that they oppose all forms of terrorism and will not engage in terrorism. They will also say that there is a difference between renouncing terrorism and adopting pacifism. Thus they will rule out attacks on ordinary civilians but leave open their right to resist Israeli military occupation of the new country of Palestine. They will also indicate their willingness to adopt a general cease-fire covering all acts of violence, so long as it is mutual.
In short, the PLO will meet the American preconditions, but they will meet them in their own formulations. This is a lot to get prior to negotiations.
There will be those who insist on more, those who demand that the PLO say “uncle.” Thus far, those who’ve been saying “No to the PLO” have gotten a free ride. The time has come to charge them with their full responsibility. Do they have anything positive to offer? Do they have a policy that will lead to peace? Or do they want to see the Middle East embroiled in four more decades of war?
It’s time to take yes for an answer.