U.S. and PLO officials Friday met for 90 minutes in their first official direct talks on peace in the Middle East, ending a long U.S. boycott of the Palestinian organization.
“It is our hope that this dialogue, as it develops, will help bring about direct negotiations that will lead to a comprehensive peace,” U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau told reporters after his meeting with a four-man PLO delegation.
He described the discussions as “practical and characterized, I would say, by seriousness of purpose.”
The first meeting came two days after Washington declared that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s recent statements on renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel met conditions for beginning contacts.
It took place in an official Tunisian government guest residence in suburban Carthage, north of Tunis. Yasser Abd Rabbou, a member of the PLO executive committee, led the Palestinian delegation.
Abd Rabbou called the first session “practical and constructive” and said he expected the next U.S.-PLO meeting to come within several weeks.
“We hope this dialogue will bring us closer to an international conference on the Middle East,” he said. “We hope this dialogue will continue and we think it will continue.”
In Madrid, a Spanish Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pelletreau had been holding meetings this year with PLO representatives under the auspices of the Spanish Embassy in Tunis.
Pelletreau has denied any previous meetings with the PLO.
Western diplomatic sources in Tunis, briefing reporters on the condition that they not be more precisely identified, said earlier Friday that there would be no detailed exchanges at the meeting, and that afterward it was likely there would be “a period of assessment.”
The American side had planned to open the meeting with a clear statement of Washington’s attitude toward terrorism, and say the United States expected Arafat’s words would be matched by his actions, a high-ranking diplomatic source said.
The United States expects that the PLO’s renunciation of terrorism will be “prominent and pervasive,” a diplomatic source said, but also understands that Arafat does not control all Palestinians, nor all acts of terrorism.
The sources said Washington would expect the PLO to dissociate itself clearly from any future acts of terrorism.
The second American agenda item, according to the sources, would be a statement of Washington’s general principles and approach to Middle East peace.
Pelletreau, once held hostage by Palestinians, telephoned PLO headquarters Thursday to make the initial official contact, according to the PLO and U.S. Embassy spokesman Adnan Siddiqi.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz designated Pelletreau as the U.S. government’s “only authorized channel of communication” with the PLO.
Today in Tunis, Palestinian flags appeared in the front of many homes and businesses, news reports said.
Arafat was not in Tunis, and it wasn’t known when he would return. He met East German leader Erich Honecker in Berlin on Thursday before heading to Romania.
East Germany was one of the first countries to recognize the independent Palestinian state declared by PLO leaders at a meeting last month.
Pelletreau, ambassador to Tunisia since March, 1987, is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable American diplomats on Arab affairs.
The Long Island native speaks Arabic and French and has served in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania.