"Never ask a question if you know in advance that you're not going to like the answer." That is the friendly advice a U.S. official involved in the Middle East peace process would like to give the Palestine Liberation Organization as it resumes dialogues with the United States in Tunis.
The question Palestinians ask--and the one Americans are reluctant to answer--is what, precisely, the Bush Administration means in supporting "the political rights" of the Palestinian people.
"Does it mean that it accepts our right, as a people, to determine our own future, to build a democratic state of our own alongside Israel?" asks Bassam abu Sharif, a senior adviser to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. "Or is it saying we should be happy with just the right to clean our own streets?"
The Administration has been intentionally vague because, if forced now to define those rights, the result would undoubtedly disappoint the PLO and outrage the Israelis. Thus Washington has argued that while the Palestinians deserve more rights than they have under Israeli occupation, defining them is best left to a later stage when Israelis and Palestinians sit together to negotiate "the final status" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Although there is now an effective, if fragile, consensus in the Arab world on the need to make peace with Israel, the Israelis themselves are deeply divided: those who favor territorial compromise versus those who want to crush the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories in order to retain "Judea and Samaria," lands seized from Jordan in the 1967 War as part of "Greater Israel."
Unable to bridge this division, especially in the climate of mutual fear and hatred generated by daily violence, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tried to step around it with a plan for elections in the occupied territories, to choose local Palestinian leaders who would negotiate the terms of an interim period of self-rule. Only if that went well could talks begin, three years later, for a final settlement.
In Tunis, the American official in charge of dialogues with the PLO, Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., has been laboring with Sisyphean persistence for several months to persuade the Palestinians to accept this plan.
Until two weeks ago, things looked promising. Despite Shamir's assertion that Israel was not negotiating with the PLO, indirect but high-level contacts were taking place between the PLO and officials from both the Labor and Likud halves of the divided Israeli government, according to senior officials in Tunis.
Abu Iyad, the PLO's second-in-command, said the Americans had relayed "assurances from Shamir personally" that Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem could participate in the elections and that ending the intifada --uprising--would not be a precondition for holding them.
Hurdles still remained, among them Palestinian insistence on establishing a "linkage" between acceptance of the election plan and subsequent negotiations to determine the "final status" of the occupied territories--preferably at an international peace conference, where the PLO would be represented.
Yet on the strength of assurances received, the PLO said it was ready to authorize a delegation of Palestinians from inside the territories to talk to the Israelis about the election proposal. Arafat's one condition was that two "outsiders" be included in the Palestinian delegation--Edward W. Said, a literature professor at New York's Columbia University, and Ibrahim abu Lughud, a political science professor at Northwestern University.
Both Americans of Palestinian descent, the two academics are about as far from the image of a kaffiyeh- clad terrorist as one could possibly get, chosen in the belief that Israel would be hard-pressed to fault their inclusion. At the same time, their presence as outsiders appointed by Tunis would establish the PLO principle of linkage, helping assuage its own fears that the real aim of the election plan is to end the intifada and drive a wedge between Palestinians inside the territories and the leadership in exile.
The July session of formal U.S.-PLO dialogue was to have nailed down details for Palestinian-Israeli pre-election talks. It had to be postponed.
Shamir was forced to attach conditions to election plans by hard-line members of his Likud Bloc at the party's Central Committee meeting early this month.
For all its deficiencies, the plan appealed to Washington for what it contained--and for what it purposely left out. By leaving open the possibility that Palestinians elected to municipal councils in the territories could be PLO supporters, and by referring only in general terms to the "final status" of those lands, the plan seemed to have just enough flexibility--"constructive ambiguity" as Washington put it--to be negotiable with the Palestinians.
Ambiguity was eliminated when Shamir accepted a binding party resolution, pressed by hard-line Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, that rules out creation of a Palestinian state, excludes PLO supporters from the elections, denies Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem the right to vote and pledges to establish more Jewish settlements in the territories.
The United States still has hopes for the election plan. But PLO officials insist it will have to be "de-Sharonized" first. Palestinians, they say, cannot be expected to accept a plan that means a surrender to perpetual Israeli occupation.
"The conditions attached by the Likud have turned the Israeli proposal into a joke," said the PLO's Abu Iyad. "After all this time and all this hard work, "we are back to square one."
This assessment is shared by Arab and Western diplomats in the region. A senior Egyptian diplomat, echoing the consensus of more than a score of officials interviewed in Tunis, Cairo and Amman, said, "The only proposal on the table has just been killed by the people who proposed it in the first place."
Over the next two weeks, the PLO leadership will meet in Tunis to reassess diplomatic strategy, including its approach to the U.S. dialogue. One outcome, PLO officials say, will be another push for an international peace conference, an idea that already enjoys Arab, West European and Soviet support.
Arafat has recently alluded to a secret agreement he says was reached with the United States last December, when at a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva, he formally renounced terrorism, recognized Israel and accepted two key U.N. Security Council resolutions affirming Israel's right to exist.
The PLO chairman has refused to disclose details of this agreement, but other PLO sources said it involved a pledge by then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz to open a dialogue with the PLO, support an international peace conference and recognize the PLO right to raise demands for self-determination in any future negotiations with Israel.
Washington fulfilled the first part of this promise when Pelletreau met with PLO officials in Tunis a few days after Arafat's pledge. Now, with the collapse of the Israeli election plan, the PLO will press the United States to live up to the other two points, sources said. This, they added, helps explain PLO persistence in asking the United States to define its conception of Palestinian political rights.
Behind this strategy lies the calculation that the new hard-line stand taken by Israel will strain its relations with the Bush Administration and make it more difficult for Washington to continue shielding the Shamir government from the growing international consensus in favor of a peace conference.
Increasing pressure for an international conference becomes a way of coaxing the Americans to lean more heavily on the Israelis for a realistic alternative. PLO officials have noted, with keen interest, recent comments by State Department officials that organizing an international peace conference may be the only way to break the impasse if Israeli conditions attached to the elections make Arab acceptance impossible.
"We must find a way to break the current stalemate," said a senior Egyptian official. "Up to now, Arafat has been able to steer a moderate course but, no less than the Israelis, he too has his own hard-line critics to worry about.
"If he fails," the official added, "if the Sharons and Shamirs of the PLO gain the advantage, then the opportunity which exists now for peace in the Middle East will be lost and we will have to wait at least another 20 years for it to come around again."