It’s America’s Turn to Shift Thinking : While Talking With PLO, U.S. Must Skirt Detours by Israel, Friends

<i> Rashid Khalidi is the associate director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. </i>

The much-heralded opening of contacts between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization made fewer waves than might have been expected. Indeed, it can now be seen that the enormous energy invested in this relatively minor issue blew it entirely out of proportion. In the cold light of morning, all parties can perceive that it was not quite what they expected.

Opponents of these contacts here and in Israel will perhaps now accept that talking to a given party does not necessarily mean embracing its every principle, tenet and belief. Those in the PLO who favored these contacts may now understand that they have a long way to go before they can agree on much with the United States, let alone Israel. And all must realize that there is a long, hard road ahead before any progress can be made on the substantive issues of a Middle East settlement that were shelved over the many years while this farce was being played out.

A few important things have happened, nevertheless. The most notable is that the lengthy campaign to demonize the PLO and put it outside the pale of civilized discourse has finally failed. Israeli diplomacy under the new team of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--representing the hardest line of Israeli hawks--will undoubtedly try to resurrect it. But it is beyond resuscitation, interred by the actions of Israel over the past year of the Palestinian uprising, which has shown Americans that the Palestinians are a people who deserve to be free and independent.


This change is rooted in an underlying shift in public opinion in this country, notably among the American Jewish community. After decades of seeing reality in the Middle East through Israeli lenses, Americans are beginning to see things for themselves. And, not surprisingly, the reality that they perceive is far more complex than before. This relates in part to the Palestinian uprising, but it began with the seemingly endless Israeli siege of Beirut during the summer of 1982. The Lebanon war had a powerful effect on public opinion, preparing it for the ugly images from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip five years later.

The fact that there has been such a shift in American opinion, of course, does not mean that it cannot be reversed. Those who oppose contacts with the PLO may well try to exploit an incident instigated by Arab opponents of the settlement process--the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may prove to be just such an incident. With the hard-line Likud team well connected with influential commentators like William Safire, George F. Will, A. M. Rosenthal and Jeane Kirkpatrick, it is easy to envisage the outlines of such a counteroffensive. It would be yet another instance of the old Middle East pattern of the extremes, in effect, cooperating against the center.

Yet another pitfall to be avoided is that of seeking a substitute for the Palestinians’ own representatives. It is already clear that the “new” Likud peace plan will include several varieties of this old ploy. Whatever the ostensible objective, the aim is to avoid dealing with the real protagonist on the other side. Behind this lies the desire to avoid substantive negotiations about Israeli withdrawal, removal of settlements, Palestinian self-determination and a freely negotiated status for Jerusalem--all anathemas to Likud.

The danger is not that the new Likud foreign-policy team will put forth such a meaningless plan, but that the United States will fail to bluntly label such an approach a non-starter. If the Bush Adminstration handles whatever warmed-over ideas are produced by Jerusalem with the kid gloves customarily reserved for America’s reception of Israeli proposals, the peace process will be in serious trouble.

But more than American frankness with Israel is necessary if the peace process is not to stall at this early stage. The United States must also accept that it cannot single-handedly resolve the longest-lasting, most intractable and most many-sided of the world’s regional conflicts. Cooperation over this matter is essential at least between the superpowers, for if a settlement is to be lasting and credible to all parties it must involve the guarantees, and perhaps the peacekeeping forces, of both Washington and Moscow.

Finally, the United States must listen with an open mind to what Palestinians say when contacts with the PLO resume late this month, and it must take a fair but firm attitude toward Israel. After being ignored as a serious party to the conflict for so many years, the PLO deserves a hearing for its peace proposals. If the Palestinians can modify their long-cherished ideas, the Americans should be able to do the same. As for Israel, the old days of indulging its every whim should be over. There is no consensus in this country for forcing Israel to do things that it refuses to do. But there is one for no longer acquiescing in and subsidizing Israeli actions that are harmful to U.S. interests and that most Americans find abhorrent. Any other course of action would sabotage the prospects for peace and further damage U.S. credibility.