Begin Talks With the PLO : Despite Fears, Israel Should Let Palestinians Prove Good Faith
As an Israeli, I find it difficult to believe Yasser Arafat. Even his speech before the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva did not allay my fear of him. The PLO chairman leaves a suspect trail in his wake, even in the view of moderate Israelis. This can be explained by the accumulated experience of Israelis with the Palestinian leadership, especially with Arafat, starting with its absolute rejection of the U.N. resolution of 1947 to establish a Jewish state and an Arab state, and ending in acts of terror in synagogues throughout Europe.
As much as I try to ignore this suspect past, it continues to trouble me, even now as Arafat faces a historical opportunity to convey a less ambiguous message to Israelis and Jews and has a chance to stop dragging his feet from one speech to another. I would like to hear Arafat state: In the name of the Palestinians, I recognize Israel’s right to exist, I call on Israelis to engage in direct negotiations without prior conditions, I renounce terrorism and I announce an immediate cease-fire in order to facilitate negotiations.
Yet, despite my suspicions, I believe that the time has come to begin negotiations, which would occur in stages and in which Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization would have to prove its good faith at each stage, bearing in mind that the PLO signed tens of cease-fire agreements with the Christians in the Lebanese civil war and that not one of these agreements was kept for long. The burden of proof is on the PLO.
It is correct to say that the insistent position of the United States and its conditions for talking with the PLO eventually prompted Arafat to move forward, in addition to the pressure exerted by the residents of the territories, who have a better understanding of reality than the PLO leadership abroad. Has the time come to respond to the steps taken by the other party? A new process is doubtlessly being generated by the Palestinians. Evidence of this can be seen in the appeal made to Israel by PLO spokesman Bassam abu Sharif, the decisions made in Algiers, the clarifications published in the name of Arafat in Stockholm and Arafat’s speech in Geneva. Although this process has not matured fully, it must not be ignored, and the vents that have shaped it must receive a response.
Negotiations should begin now, since it seems unlikely that Israel will maintain a long-term presence in Shkehm (Nablus) or the Gaza Strip. It is preferable that Israel negotiate from a position of strength, and in full coordination with the United States. These factors currently exist, and I am not sure that they will be present in the future.
Those opposing negotiations with the PLO at any cost will claim that Arafat did not dispel the PLO’s typical vagueness in his Geneva speech. While this is true, one looking at the entire picture understands that it is nonetheless necessary to begin contacts. Official Israel is still unwilling to hold such contacts. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will argue that U.S. conditions for talking to the PLO are not his conditions. Hence, though the PLO now accepts the U.S. conditions, it will make no difference to Shamir--all the more so since Shamir is prepared to offer the Palestinians a more attractive autonomy plan than that offered by Menachem Begin in the framework of the Camp David accords.
Moreover, Shamir is demanding a detailed timetable for the establishment of 40 new settlements in the territories in negotiations being conducted with the Labor Party on the establishment of a national unity government. Shimon Peres’ position is different. A portion of the Labor Party is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians, although it still expects King Hussein to produce acceptable Palestinian negotiating partners, and Peres remains unwilling to accept the PLO leadership abroad.
Will 1989 be a year of negotiations between Israel and the PLO? It does not appear so at present. In 1989, as announced on Wednesday, a dialogue will occur between Washington and the PLO. This dialogue will not bring salvation to the Palestinians, for the United States faces the problem posed by President-elect George Bush’s commitment not to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Hence, even if a U.S.-PLO dialogue occurs, it would not constitute negotiations to establish a Palestinian state. In any case the PLO must negotiate with Israel and not with Washington. A U.S.-PLO dialogue can only facilitate negotiations, not supplant them.
I see the next stage taking place in the territories. Israel must agree to general and municipal elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In these elections a new class of leaders will arise who will be extremist in the view of many Israelis, but pragmatic. There is no doubt that this leadership will call itself the leadership of the PLO. It will not be able to speak on behalf of the Palestinian leadership abroad, although it will represent the Palestinian residents in the territories. Even though Israeli perception will identify these leaders with the PLO, it will be easier to hold contacts and discussions with them concerning the next stage.