The United States, resuming its formal dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia, urged PLO officials Wednesday to take “practical steps” to reduce the level of violence and tension in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The meeting, the first since the Bush Administration took office, lasted an extraordinary 4 1/2 hours at a closely guarded government guest house near Tunis. The length of the session, nearly three times as long as the first formal U.S.-PLO meeting last December, reflected the fact that, according to both sides, the dialogue has now been expanded to include a broad discussion of “substantive” issues related to the Middle East peace process.
In advance of Wednesday’s meeting, PLO officials had been voicing growing concern that the dialogue was in danger of bogging down because of what they felt was the Bush Administration’s reluctance to discuss Arab proposals for a Middle East peace conference or other questions of substance.
Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia who is in charge of the talks, had not met formally with the PLO since Dec. 16, when the dialogue was begun following PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s public renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. Several informal contacts since then have focused on U.S. complaints about attempted incursions into Israel by radical Palestinian factions and whether these constitute a violation of Arafat’s pledge on terrorism.
Pelletreau, speaking to reporters after the meeting, confirmed that this time “substantive issues relating to the peace process” were discussed with the three-member PLO delegation led by Yasser Abed-Rabho, a member of the PLO Executive Committee.
However, the ambassador added that he also pressed the PLO on the question of terrorism and talked at length about “practical steps that can be taken in the occupied territories to reduce tension.”
U.S. officials had indicated before the meeting that an effort by the Bush Administration to extract mutual “confidence-building” measures from Israel and the PLO in advance of any attempt to reactivate the peace process would be high on the American agenda at the talks.
Neither side would comment on the specific steps that Washington is urging the PLO to take, but Abed-Rabho, in a statement read after the meeting, said the source for the continuing tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “Israeli occupation and the oppressive measures which are committed daily against our people.”
He also dismissed suggestions that the PLO should or could end the intifada, the 15-month-long Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, saying it would continue until “it extracts independence and enables the Palestinian state to practice sovereignty.”
‘Matters of Substance’
A senior Palestinian official said afterward that the meeting represented progress because with it the U.S.-PLO dialogue has “finally been elevated to a level where matters of substance can be discussed.”
The constraint characterizing this and other assessments of the meeting suggested, however, that the two sides are still far apart.
This was not surprising because, since the dialogue began last December, the Bush Administration has sought to distance itself from the Reagan Administration’s qualified acceptance of proposals for an international Middle East peace conference as sought by the Arabs and supported by Western European nations.
Also, the Administration’s reluctance to come up with its own Mideast peace initiative has been a major disappointment to the PLO’s moderate Arab backers, who fear that the opportunities created by Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel will be lost without a constructive new U.S. effort to pressure Israel into making reciprocal concessions.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Hussein of Jordan will both be going to Washington over the next few weeks, bracketing a similar visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in an effort to convince the Bush Administration of the urgency of making this effort.
According to U.S. officials, one of the key questions on Pelletreau’s agenda for the meeting was whether the PLO would agree to direct negotiations with Israel in advance of an international conference.
Abu Iyad, Arafat’s second in command, said earlier this month that the PLO was willing to enter into direct talks, either openly or in secret, with Israel in order to reach a peace settlement. A full peace conference could then follow in order to legitimize and obtain international guarantees for whatever agreement was reached in the direct talks, he added.
Abed-Rabho was less explicit on this question Wednesday but did say that he told Pelletreau that “bilateral meetings between the parties concerned” could take place during the course of preparing for an international conference.
Another Palestinian official said that Abed-Rabho was less forthcoming on this issue because, given Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the PLO under any circumstances, further concessions would be “pointless” at this stage.
Ticking off the concessions the PLO has already made, the official said “we have recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced terrorism, agreed to settle for a Palestinian state in only the West Bank and Gaza Strip and offered to negotiate anywhere and at any level with the Israelis. It is now up to the other side,” he added, “to respond positively.”
Meanwhile, a senior Palestinian official told the Associated Press that the PLO would accept the deployment of U.S. forces in the occupied territories for a transitional period if Israel withdrew from the territory. Bassam abu Sharif said U.S. troops could help oversee free elections in an independent Palestinian state.
But in Washington, a State Department official said the PLO had not made such a request during its talks with U.S. officials.