The American ambassador in Tunisia telephoned the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization on Thursday to begin an official dialogue the United States had resisted for more than 13 years, while President Reagan sought to reassure Israel that Washington has not "retreated one inch" from its support for the Jewish state.
The State Department said that Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., designated as the only U.S. official authorized to deal with the PLO, made his first contact with the organization less than 24 hours after Reagan ended the U.S. diplomatic boycott. A face-to-face meeting may be held as early as today.
The U.S. decision to talk to the PLO produced waves of outrage from Israel, which considers the organization nothing more than a collection of terrorists. The Jerusalem government complained that the U.S. action will strengthen the PLO's demand for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
Reagan Reaffirms Backing
Reagan, once considered the firmest friend of Israel among the eight American chief executives since the state was established in 1948, tried to soften the impact of the decision by insisting that it will not affect U.S. backing for Israel.
"We have made it very plain that we have not retreated one inch from our position of guaranteeing the safety of Israel," the President said while posing for photographs in the Oval Office.
The State Department turnaround, announced by Secretary of State George P. Shultz on Wednesday, followed a press conference in Geneva earlier in the day by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whose statement recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism finally satisfied Washington's longstanding conditions for dealing with the PLO.
During his press conference, Arafat expanded on his speech before a special session of the U.N. General Assembly the previous day by saying that "we totally and absolutely renounce all forms of terrorism, including individual, group and state terrorism." He affirmed "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security . . . including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors." And he endorsed U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for a Middle East peace conference.
Asked Thursday if the United States could trust the PLO to really renounce terrorism, as Arafat pledged Wednesday, Reagan said: " Well, . . . the words have been spoken, and the words were the words that we have been stating were necessary. . . . The words must be matched by performance, and if they're not, why, we're back where we started."
Later, Reagan explained that if the PLO fails to keep its word on renouncing terrorism, "We certainly (will) break off communications."
Reagan called the move "just another step in what we've been trying for eight years, to bring about peace in the Middle East."
Shultz summoned Israeli journalists to his office for a rare group interview Thursday morning. Asked what message he wanted to send to Israel, Shultz said, "The first message is that our sense of commitment to Israel and Israel's security is strong, unshakable as it has always been."
But Shultz left little doubt that the United States has withdrawn its opposition to PLO participation in the Middle East peace process. That development certainly will add to the distress of Israel, which has said it will never negotiate with the PLO.
As long as the PLO was effectively barred from the peace process, Israel could contend--as it frequently did--that it was ready for direct negotiations without preconditions with any of its Arab neighbors. However, the prospect of PLO participation in the talks might force Israel to reject negotiations, an act that could weaken its claim to be always ready to talk peace.
Shultz said the U.S. objective is to bring about direct negotiations between Israel and "a state or somebody who is representing those whose interests have to be negotiated about." Later, State Department spokesman Charles Redman described the PLO as "one of the parties" to the Middle East dispute.
Previously, the U.S. government had maintained that negotiations should be between Israel and neighboring Arab governments. Shultz's peace initiative, which collapsed earlier this year, called for the Palestinians to be represented as part of a joint delegation with Jordan. That plan assigned no role to the PLO, although U.S. officials said privately that the Palestinian members of the joint delegation could be PLO members provided they were not prominent ones.
"The dialogue (with the PLO) itself is not an end," Shultz told the Israeli reporters. "Our object is to do whatever we can, in talking to whomever we talk to, to help move things toward peace in the Middle East."
Ambassador Pelletreau, designated by Shultz to be the contact with the PLO, has been ambassador to Tunisia since March, 1987. Palestinian sources, quoted by the Associated Press in Tunis, said the PLO delegation at the first face-to-face meeting will probably be led by Executive Committee members Abdullah Hourani and Yasser Abed-Rabho.
Pelletreau, 53, was briefly a hostage of Palestinian extremists in 1970, when he was a diplomat stationed in Amman, Jordan. Guerrillas of George Habash's Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine diverted three airliners to Amman and took passengers and crew members hostage. When the hostages were taken to a downtown hotel for a press conference, Pelletreau escaped his inattentive captors by mingling with the journalists and walking out with them after the conference ended.
Pelletreau's initial telephone call was the first official and authorized U.S. contact with the PLO since 1975, when then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger promised Israel that Washington would have no dealings with the organization until it recognized Israel's right to exist and accepted Resolutions 242 and 338 on the Mideast. In 1984 those conditions, plus a requirement that the PLO renounce terrorism, were written into U.S. law.
Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Jimmy Carter Administration, was fired for breaching the rule against contacts with PLO officials.
The State Department said Pelletreau can do little more than get the process started during the five weeks left in the Reagan Administration.
"This dialogue will only begin to fully develop with the next Administration," Redman told the daily State Department briefing.
President-elect George Bush told reporters Thursday that, although he supports Reagan's decision, he has developed no "game plan" for moving the relationship forward.
"Let's see how things evolve," Bush said. "My position remains the same. I want to see direct talks between, for example, between King Hussein of Jordan and the Israelis."
Times staff writer Lee May contributed to this story.