The Palestine Liberation Organization made a novel effort to influence Israeli public opinion Wednesday by means of a videotape, shown at a Jerusalem peace symposium, in which a top PLO official appeals for direct talks with Israel's government.
No one could remember a PLO official addressing the Israeli public in such a way, even in a closed forum. It was the latest development in a recent string of contacts between leftist, dovish Israelis and PLO sympathizers here and PLO members abroad.
The Palestinian speaker on the tape is Salah Khalaf, a deputy to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Khalaf, who uses the code name Abu Iyad, is regarded as an inflexible hard-liner among PLO officials.
"All security arrangements and guarantees can be discussed in direct meetings," Khalaf said. "Then, if we reach agreement, as I am sure we shall, we can take this agreement to an international conference where the entire world can be a witness to these security arrangements, so that not a single loophole will be left to spoil it."
The offer appeared to put a new face on the PLO's demand that an international peace conference, under U.N. auspices, be convened to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has refused to talk with the PLO under any circumstances.
The Khalaf tape, smuggled into Israel via Paris from PLO headquarters in Tunis, was shown at a symposium organized by the International Center for Middle East Peace, headed by former Foreign Minister Abba Eban. Officers of the center declined to say who had brought the tape into Israel, except to say that it was a European member of the group's board.
Khalaf seemed to go out of his way to assure his viewers that the PLO quest for a Palestinian state is not just a way to build a springboard to attack Israel.
"The important thing," he said, "is that the two peoples, the Palestinian and Israeli, come to believe in the necessity of coexistence between the two states."
He appealed for Israelis to see the PLO's implicit recognition of Israel as a bold and moderate step.
Test of Courage
"We would remind you," he said, "that just as you have some extremists, we also have many such people. However, the test of courage is when such extremism is countered head-on rather than surrendered to."
Khalaf said that the PLO's national charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, is open for discussion.
"Our covenant and yours can be discussed," he said, apparently refering to the Israeli declaration of independence.
Earlier in the day, the symposium featured another first: a Soviet expert on Middle East affairs making a public appearance in Israel. In the recent thaw between Jerusalem and Moscow, most cultural contacts have taken place in the Soviet Union. An Israeli basketball team recently played in Moscow and a pair of Israeli singers performed there.
The Mideast expert, Andre Shouminkhin, called for a speedup in contacts aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he said the Soviet Union could play a key role.
"Without the Soviet Union, conflicts cannot be resolved easily, if at all," he said.
In reference to reports from Washington that the Bush Administration sees a reduced role for Moscow in Middle East diplomacy, Shouminkhin remarked that "no one should impose any restrictions on Soviet participation in the settlement."
"The greater the Soviet role, as well as the role of other outsiders in settling (this) particular conflict, I think, the better for everyone around," he said.
Shouminkhin pressed for inclusion of the PLO in any such talks.
"Let's face it," he said, "Without the PLO . . . peace cannot be achieved. You can go on postponing these negotiations, but if you really want an understanding you should begin."