PLO Boosts Diplomatic Offensive : Seeks to Maintain Peace Drive; More U.S. Talks Planned
Hoping to capture the attention of the Bush Administration at the outset, the Palestine Liberation Organization and moderate Arab states are beginning the new year with an intensive and closely coordinated diplomatic campaign to maintain the momentum they see as finally running in their favor in the Middle East peace process.
The importance of maintaining this momentum is based on a belief, shared by an increasingly confident coalition of moderate Arab leaders, that the Middle East is now at a watershed where, for the first time in many years, there is a real chance to make progress toward a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
“There is an opening now which we see as a historic opportunity to bring peace to this region, and we are determined this time to seize the opportunity and not lose it,” Osama Baz, chief foreign policy adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said recently.
Both Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein plan to visit Washington early in the year--perhaps as soon as next month, after a similar visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir--to put their case for the convening of an international peace conference directly to President-elect George Bush.
Senior Palestinian sources said the PLO would like to have one or more of its own senior representatives tag along with either Mubarak or Hussein but realizes that it is probably too soon, in the newly initiated U.S.-PLO dialogue, for the United States to agree to that.
Instead, the PLO is trying to get permission for several prominent but lesser-ranking members of the organization to visit the United States privately for the purpose of explaining the PLO’s position to lawmakers, media representatives and American Jewish community leaders.
These envoys, the sources said, would be drawn from the ranks of the PLO’s “acceptable” Palestinians--those whose political views have always been considered moderate and who have no past or present connection with terrorism or with the military side of the PLO.
PLO officials also hope that the U.S.-Palestinian dialogue begun last month in Tunis will resume later this month with at least one more meeting before the Reagan Administration leaves office Jan. 20.
On Monday, PLO spokesman Hani Faidi told Spanish state radio in Madrid that the second round of U.S.-PLO talks will be held Saturday. He mentioned no location.
But White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk, with President Reagan in Los Angeles, said that “there are currently no plans for such a meeting.”
However, sources indicated that while no decision has been made, such a meeting is under consideration.
On the Palestinian agenda for the talks will be the international peace conference--which the PLO, perhaps somewhat optimistically, hopes can be convened late this year--and an effort to “regularize” the dialogue with the United States by agreeing on a schedule for future meetings.
Another item the Palestinian side is prepared to discuss, should the U.S. side raise it, is the question of informal cooperation in thwarting terrorism, PLO sources said. Suspicion in the bombing of a Pan American World Airways jumbo jet blown up over Scotland last month has focused on several radical Palestinian splinter groups based in Syria, Libya and Lebanon.
Although Palestinian officials have stressed that the PLO has no control over these groups, which have broken away from the organization, they have indicated a willingness to use their own intelligence network to help find out who was responsible for the attack.
Seeking Israeli Contacts
While the new Palestinian diplomacy is targeted primarily at the United States, PLO officials are also canvassing Western Europe for support and seeking, through both direct and indirect channels, to make contact with “any and all Israelis who are willing to talk to us in return,” one PLO source said.
“What most want,” he added, “is to make contact with mainstream Israelis, not just those who are Marxists and doves.”
“We are looking for ways to keep up the momentum on all fronts, in America, Europe and Israel,” said Nabeel Shaath, a Cairo-based Palestinian businessman and political adviser to the PLO. “Keeping up the momentum,” he said, “is absolutely critical now.”
The latter half of 1988 witnessed a number of remarkable events that, in the Arab view, have combined to create this new opening. Among them were:
-- King Hussein’s decision to sever Jordan’s administrative ties to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, thus removing the so-called Jordan option that both Israel and the United States had been hoping would serve as an alternative to peace negotiations with the PLO.
-- The ascendancy of Palestinian moderates at a meeting in Algiers last November of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s so-called parliament in exile. There, the majority overrode the objections of the radicals and accepted two key U.N. Security Council resolutions, 242 and 338, as the basis for a peace settlement. In doing so, the PLO not only implicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist but effectively renounced its claim to most of what was originally Palestine.
-- The declaration, one month later, by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat making explicit what the PNC resolutions had implied--namely, that the PLO recognizes Israel’s right to exist, accepts Resolutions 242 and 338 and renounces terrorism “in all its forms.”
-- The decision by the United States, in response to Arafat’s declaration, to lift a 13-year ban on official contacts with the PLO and to open what Secretary of State George P. Shultz said he hoped would be a “substantive dialogue” with the Palestinians on the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Even more important than all these momentous developments, in the Arab view, was the event that riveted the world’s attention on the Middle East for most of 1988--the Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“We owe everything to the intifada, " a senior PLO official said. “The intifada was the driving force and the catalyst behind everything else. What Hussein did, what Arafat did, what the Americans did . . . none of it would have happened had it not been for the intifada. “
The uprising, most analysts agree, transformed Arab, Israeli and Western notions about the Middle East conflict in several profound ways.
In the Arab world, the Palestinian revolt posed new demands and challenges that only the moderates were in a position to meet. By demanding that their exiled and scattered leadership come up with realistic solutions to their plight, the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories for the first time became a decisive force in their own right.
The PLO leadership, presiding over what one of Arafat’s senior advisers calls “a revolution on a flying carpet,” had long claimed to speak for the Palestinians living directly under Israeli rule. But with the uprising, the Palestinians in the territories were “for the first time speaking to us, using the intifada as their voice,” the adviser said.
The uprising gave PLO moderates the chance “to come out of the closet . . . by articulating what the core leadership has understood for a long time but has been unable to come out with” because of opposition from radical Arabs, says David Butter, a Middle East expert with the London-based Middle East Digest.
Combined with other regional events such as Iran’s defeat by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, the intifada helped to isolate the regional influence of radicals such as Syria over the course of 1988. “The Syrians have lost their ability to obstruct things,” said Shaath, the PLO official in Cairo. “They have become the Albanians of the Middle East.”
The Palestinian uprising has also had a profound impact in Israel. Although opinion polls indicate that Israelis are still divided over whether they should seek to give up the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in return for peace, the intifada has shattered the assumption that the Palestinians would continue to passively acquiesce in their occupation.
Internal Israel Threat
In the view of many analysts in both Israel and the Arab world, the uprising has also demonstrated, clearly and painfully, that the main threat to Israel’s existence is no longer an external one but an internal problem, one that can be resolved only by finding some means of accommodating Palestinian demands for self-determination.
Not everyone would agree with this, but the growing conviction that this is so has already won the PLO significant new support in the West, especially among the nations of the European Community.
Finally, there are two other factors that give the Arabs cause for hope that 1989 may witness real progress toward a resolution of the Middle East dispute.
One is the growing climate of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union, which has already helped to resolve other regional disputes and is now being focused more closely on the Middle East.
The other is the continuity, both in terms of key people and policies, in the transition from the Reagan to the Bush Administration.
A perennial complaint in this part of the world is that every time a new U.S. administration takes office, it is, as one diplomat notes, “like History 101 all over again.” Valuable time and opportunities are often wasted as each new administration orients itself and starts learning the issues.
The ideological affinity between the Reagan and Bush administrations, as well as Bush’s experience as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, should shorten this orientation process, Arab officials hope.
With all this said, the obstacles that loom ahead are still formidable. The Arabs and the Israelis remain fundamentally divided over both the basic terms of a peace settlement and the form that the negotiations to achieve it should take.
The Arabs still insist that negotiations take place under the sponsoring umbrella of the U.N. Security Council and that the PLO be represented, either independently or as part of an Arab delegation.
While Prime Minister Shamir has suggested that the Soviet Union could co-sponsor the talks with the United States, he still rejects the idea of U.N. involvement and refuses to negotiate with the PLO, labeling it an unrepentant terrorist organization.
And while Shamir has indicated that he is willing to consider some form of limited Palestinian autonomy, in cooperation with Jordan and Egypt, the Arabs continue to insist that their minimum demand is Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in confederation with Jordan.
Although the opening of the U.S.-Palestinian dialogue has at least temporarily strengthened the hand of the Arab moderates, it has also exposed them--as they are painfully aware--to a major risk. If, approaching these talks with quite different agendas, the PLO and the United States hit a deadlock that cannot be resolved, the political pendulum in the region will start to swing back to the side of the radicals again.
“We are sincerely intent on achieving a negotiated settlement of the Middle East dispute,” says Abu Iyad, the PLO official who ranks second only to Arafat.
“But if we don’t make good on this intention,” he adds, “then the next time the Palestine National Council meets, we will see the rise of the extremists and the fall of the moderates. If there is no peaceful solution, then next time the extremists will take the floor.”