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Upgrade Talks With the PLO : Israel Needs the Signal, Arafat Needs the Confidence to Deal

<i> Charles H. Percy, former U.S. senator from Illinois (1967-1984), was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1980-84. He currently is chairman of the United States International Cultural and Trade Center Presidential Commission. </i>

In the aftermath of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s visit to Washington, the Israeli government’s self-defeating political stalemate on the Palestinian question has been reaffirmed.

Despite the intifada’s clarion call for political change, Shamir’s peace plan--local elections without international supervision--gives no real hope to the Palestinians since their acknowledged representative, the Palestine Liberation Organization, cannot take part. Fearless of a deeply divided Labor Party in Israel and confident that the U.S. Congress would not force him to account for human rights violations, Shamir declared himself “immune” from Bush Administration pressure even before arriving in Washington. Clearly, Israel’s lockout of the PLO in the conflict-resolution process calls for new American initiatives and leadership in reconciling the two parties.

As Shamir certainly knows, disputes between two groups are never resolved when one side insists on dictating the composition of the other’s negotiating team. In this case, Shamir is misguided if he expects Israel to avoid dealing directly or indirectly with the PLO. By now, it is clear that only the PLO can claim to be the legitimate political representative of the Palestinian people. Just as important, only the PLO can deliver anything after negotiations that would bind Palestinians to future rules of conduct, an essential precept for a lasting peace.

The Bush Administration has largely accepted this reality. In recent congressional testimony, Secretary of State James A. Baker III declared that Israel could not rule out negotiations with the PLO, thereby breaking an unspoken taboo against U.S. policy-makers publicly discussing such an option. In addition, the Adminis- tration has recently emphasized the necessity of concessions by both the PLO and Israel, steps that would bring confidence and logically culminate in discussions.

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The problem is that each side’s ability to make concessions is in reverse proportion to their willingness to do so. As the occupying power on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel has available numerous concessions but has heretofore made only cosmetic gestures. At all costs, Shamir wants to stonewall any Israeli actions that might lead to either direct contact with the PLO or spark Palestinian hope for an independent state. The PLO, starting from a basic position of weakness, has already recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism. It has little left to concede other than the intifada itself, which it would gladly do if statehood could be guaranteed at the end of the peace process.

There are two compelling reasons for the United States and Israel to be more forthcoming and realistic vis-a-vis the PLO. First, the current, relatively moderate PLO leadership continues to be threatened by secular and radical religious elements. It must achieve tangible results if it is to maintain credibility with the Palestinian people. Second, the incipient proliferation of medium-range conventional missiles in the Middle East, not to mention biological and nuclear weapons capabilities, raise the specter of what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has called “the horrors of further conflict.”

Most experts now see a permanent shift occurring in the Arab-Israeli military equation. Within the three- to five-year time frame most often mentioned as a transitional period to some form of Palestinian self-rule, at least five Arab countries will likely possess arms capable of inflicting massive damage on Israel. Libya may have significantly shortened this period with its recent purchase of advanced jet bombers from the Soviet Union. A genuine peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians, must begin very soon.

No political group in Israel today appears strong enough to move from factionalism to unity and achieve peace. Creative U.S. diplomacy is essential to a process of concessions and counter-concessions that must break the current Israeli-PLO deadlock. To jump-start this process, the most promising immediate U.S. option is to rapidly normalize communications between Washington and the PLO.

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At present, the very experienced U.S. ambassador, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., is the only approved channel of communication with the PLO. This arrangement may prove too inflexible, considering the difficult road ahead for U.S. diplomacy. A concerted move by the United States to upgrade talks with the PLO could give Arafat the confidence to consider further, difficult concessions--including those involving the intifada itself--and hopefully provide the impetus for a more constructive Israeli position.

This evolution in the American position may seem premature to some, but the U.S. dialogue with the PLO is now our most powerful vehicle for peace. It may well be that only through an intensified U.S.-PLO dialogue will Israel and its leaders finally realize that Israeli peace and security, which the U.S. considers essential, hinge on their own direct dialogue with the PLO.


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