The Bush Administration is urging Israel to withdraw most of its troops from the predominantly Arab cities and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in effect giving up its yearlong attempt to put down the Palestinian uprising with armed force, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources.
The proposal, which assumes that Israeli soldiers would remain in nearby barracks ready to react quickly to major security problems in the occupied territories, was sent to Jerusalem through diplomatic channels in advance of next week’s visit to Washington by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the sources said.
At the same time, the Administration is urging the Palestine Liberation Organization to respond to such an Israeli gesture by using its influence to persuade West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians to stop throwing rocks and firebombs, limiting the protests in the intifada , as the uprising is called in Arabic, to nonviolent ones.
“The most important thing is to get the troops out of the cities,” an Arab diplomat said. “If that happens, it will change the entire atmosphere. The Administration’s plan is to reduce the level of violence.”
Martin Indik, director of the strongly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Israel might be prepared to withdraw its soldiers if the Shamir government believes that the step would lead to a new political dialogue with Palestinian leaders who are not closely tied to the PLO.
“Once you get the parties moving and responding and reciprocating to each other, you create a new environment where negotiations are possible,” Indik said. “But before you can get to removing the military government or relocating Israeli forces, you have to move from this dialogue of violence to a political dialogue.”
So far, the Administration’s approach has produced a surprisingly favorable reaction from both Arabs and Israelis, despite generations of hostility. However, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has discussed the U.S. plan only in broad generalities. When he begins to fill in the specific details, the initial positive response may fade.
For the first time since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the 1967 Middle East War, the United States is negotiating directly with the PLO, creating a precarious triangular diplomacy with Washington trying to cajole Israel and the PLO into making conciliatory gestures toward the other to build trust between the bitter antagonists.
According to Arab diplomatic sources, the U.S. government and the PLO are discussing a possible one-time, high-level meeting, possibly involving PLO chief Yasser Arafat and a senior Administration official. The sources said that the results of such a meeting would be predetermined, with the PLO agreeing to make so-far-unspecified concessions in exchange for the high-level exposure.
No Plans to Upgrade Talks
However, a State Department official said there are no plans to upgrade the dialogue with the PLO in which Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, represents the U.S. government.
Shamir is scheduled to meet with Baker and President Bush on April 6. U.S. officials have said that they expect him to come with new ideas to break the impasse in the Middle East peace process. The Israeli prime minister, who developed a penchant for secrecy as a clandestine operator for the Mossad intelligence service, has not revealed his plans for the meeting.
“It’s difficult to come up with genuinely new ideas when you talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Indik said. “Baker is sending a message that he hopes the prime minister will come with something very serious. But he may be raising expectations that cannot be met.”
Indik, who enjoys close contacts with the Israeli government, predicted that Shamir would propose “elections-plus, and the plus is unclear.” He referred to the possibility of elections to select Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government has made clear that it sees West Bank and Gaza elections as a means to select leaders independent of the PLO, although pro-PLO candidates won virtually all of the municipal elections in 1976, the last time Israel permitted elections in the West Bank. The PLO objects to West Bank and Gaza elections because it insists that it is already the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, a view shared by every Arab government.
An Arab diplomat said that Baker’s call for balanced, reciprocal and reinforcing gestures of good will by the Israeli government and the PLO appears at first glance to be illogical because it assumes that the PLO will support steps leading to an Israeli dialogue with non-PLO Palestinians, something that the PLO adamantly rejects.
However, the diplomat said he is cautiously optimistic that the U.S. approach will ultimately produce a settlement. He reasoned that Israel ultimately would have no choice but to negotiate with the PLO because the organization enjoys overwhelming support in the occupied territories. And, he said, once Israel commits itself to negotiations with Palestinians, it will be unable to turn back.
William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council expert on the Middle East now on the staff of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that some Administration officials agree with the Arab diplomat’s assessment. But he said others think that Israel can find Palestinian negotiating partners from outside the organization.
“Certainly some people in the Administration will argue that Israel needs to have the chance to start talks with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza even if they all turn out to be pro-PLO,” Quandt said.
“There are two basic schools of thought. One is that once Israel starts with these West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, the Israelis will be able to appeal to their instinctive interests that diverge from the interests of the PLO. This could produce an embryo of non-PLO leadership. The other school of thought is that this is simply a way of starting talks with the PLO by using a cut-out,” or substitute.
“What I don’t hear anybody saying right now is that they are confident Shamir can be pushed all the way to dealing with the PLO,” Quandt added.
Shamir and his government refuse to have any dealings with the PLO, which they call a terrorist organization despite Arafat’s public renunciation of terrorism and acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist late last year.