A top official of the Palestine Liberation Organization said Thursday that the group will consider a cease-fire between Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli soldiers or a brief halt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip uprising to demonstrate its acceptance of new U.S. overtures toward the PLO.
But Nabil Shaath, a senior foreign policy adviser to Chairman Yasser Arafat, said that the PLO cannot afford to accept in more than a token way the Bush Administration’s call for steps to ease the level of violence in the 15-month-old Arab uprising, known as the intifada .
“We have to be very careful about any proposals that would stop the intifada or abort it because that would abort the (PLO) peace plan,” Shaath said. “I think we would be irrelevant if the intifada ends.”
Supports Baker’s Suggestion
Nevertheless, Shaath said that the PLO “takes very seriously” the suggestion of Secretary of State James A. Baker III that Israel may have to negotiate directly with the PLO if no credible Palestinian leadership emerges outside the organization. Israel, which steadfastly refuses to have any dealings with the PLO, has protested that Baker’s remarks will torpedo its effort to find non-PLO Palestinians with whom it can negotiate.
“I can assure him (Baker) there is no other representative,” Shaath said.
“We will look at this very seriously and will make positive response,” Shaath said. He said that the response might include a proposal for a one-day interruption of the intifada or a cease-fire between PLO guerrillas and the Israeli army. It will be presented next week to Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., U.S. ambassador to Tunisia and the only American official authorized to conduct a dialogue with the PLO.
Baker’s comment was wrapped in subtle nuances. He said, for instance, that he was only saying that the United States would not “rule out categorically, absolutely and unequivocally” giving the PLO a place at the conference table. He said that it would be preferable if credible non-PLO Palestinians could be found, but he implied that he is not optimistic that it will be possible to find them.
However, Baker’s comments were recognized by both Israel and the PLO as an astonishing shift in the American attitude. After a day of shocked silence, the Israeli government complained bitterly to American officials that Baker had undercut the peace process by encouraging the PLO to intimidate any Palestinians who might be willing to negotiate with the Israeli government. Israeli newspapers carried banner headlines reporting a new rift between Israel and its primary supporter.
Baker’s public remarks were phrased to avoid the appearance of a U.S.-Israel confrontation. However, a senior Administration official said: “We don’t agree with Israel in all respects, with respect to what should take place in order to move us toward peace.”
Although Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) complained that Baker was playing into the hands of the PLO, the secretary of state’s overture drew surprisingly little immediate criticism from Israel’s traditional friends on Capitol Hill.
“I really honestly believe that there is some change in (American) attitudes,” the senior Administration official said. “The situation on the ground has deteriorated to the point where the world really longs for peace and they long to see the parties make every effort to move toward peace.”
Shaath, chairman of the political committee of the PLO’s parliament in exile, the Palestine National Council, was in the United States for a conference last weekend at Columbia University. His trip coincided with a visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens. Although Shaath did not meet with either Baker or Arens, the situation produced a remarkable round of triangular diplomacy in which Baker advanced U.S. ideas and Arens and Shaath reacted to them.
Baker, after meeting Arens, called for both Israel and the PLO to adopt “reinforcing and reciprocal” steps to defuse the tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to U.S. officials, Baker wants Israel to ease group punishments, such as the destruction of houses, to release prisoners held without trial and to reopen Arab schools. The officials said Baker wants the PLO to use its influence to lower the level of violence perpetrated by Palestinians.
In effect, both Arens and Shaath rejected Baker’s suggestions. Arens said that Israel cannot ease the conditions of its occupation until the violence of the intifada ends. Shaath said that the Palestinians cannot call off the intifada until the occupation ends. However, Baker seems to have injected new life into the peace process after a long period of stagnation.
In Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, PLO Executive Council member Yasser Abedrabbo agreed with Shaath that the PLO would not agree to call off the intifada. He said in published remarks that the PLO “will not discuss any proposal on the continuation of the uprising, which is categorically not a subject for discussion or bargaining” when its representatives meet Pelletreau next Wednesday in Tunis. Abedrabbo was a member of the Palestinian delegation for the last meeting with Pelletreau last year.
Arafat Suspects Sabotage
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency reported from Tunis that PLO officials have said privately that Arafat believes hard-line guerrillas are trying to sabotage his diplomatic efforts by trying to infiltrate armed guerrillas into Israel.
Twenty Palestinian guerrillas have been killed in abortive attacks on Israel from Lebanon in the last month. The Israeli government claims that the raids, none of which succeeded in crossing the border, violate the PLO’s pledge to abandon the use of terrorism.
Shaath said that Arafat has called for “a cooling-down process” that would preclude armed raids by PLO guerrillas into Israel. He said that Arafat’s mainline Fatah wing of the PLO was not involved in the attempted attacks.
However, Shaath said, Arafat has not condemned the activities of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine because the raids were aimed at Israeli military targets, not at civilians. He said that Arafat would condemn any attacks on civilians as acts of terrorism.