• U.S.

Breakthrough : After 13 years of silence, the U.S. agrees to talk with the P.L.O.

13 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary

A few simple words. Israel. Renounce. 242. Such is the flimsy coin of diplomacy. Yasser Arafat’s decision to utter these particular words has shaken the Middle East puzzle and launched the stalemated parties on a perilous and by no means certain course toward peace. After weeks of waffling, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization last week finally ended a crazily contorted semantic dance with what passed, for him, as plain speaking. Yes, the P.L.O. recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. Yes, the P.L.O. accepted United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yes, the P.L.O. renounced terrorism in all its forms. Period.

For 13 years the U.S. has been waiting to hear these exact words from the lips of the man the Palestinians have chosen as their leader and others have regarded as a murderous terrorist. Historians will argue whether Arafat actually said them on Nov. 15 in Algiers, when the Palestine National Council declared an independent state; or on Dec. 7 in Stockholm, when the P.L.O. leader and a group of U.S. Jews issued a joint “clarifying” statement; or on Dec. 13, when Arafat delivered an impassioned appeal for peace negotiations to a special U.N. General Assembly session in Geneva. Each time the cotton in Arafat’s mouth prevented the U.S. from hearing the precise syntax it wanted. But on Dec. 14, in a frantically arranged press conference to delineate the P.L.O. position one more time, Arafat finally got the linguistic formula right.

“As a result,” declared Secretary of State George Shultz four hours later, “the U.S. is prepared for a substantive dialogue with P.L.O. representatives.” With that, the Reagan Administration opened a door securely locked in 1975 when Henry Kissinger promised Israel that the U.S. would not deal with the P.L.O. unless the organization met Washington’s preconditions. In the end, the words Arafat finally uttered were less significant than the intent Washington glimpsed of a P.L.O. apparently ready to swap its strategy of intransigence for the bargaining table.

The Administration’s bold response was all the more remarkable for coming at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev had made U.S. diplomacy appear calcified and reactive. American willingness to talk with the P.L.O. profoundly alters the political landscape of the Middle East in ways not yet clearly outlined but fresh with the potential for progress. The announcement sent a wave of approval through the West European and Arab communities, which have long urged the U.S. to end its increasingly futile code of silence. The move shocked Israel, which now stands alone in rejecting all contact with the P.L.O. With only a few weeks left in office, Ronald Reagan gave George Bush a huge Christmas present: the opportunity to make real progress in the Middle East without taking the heat for a fiercely controversial decision.

Was the startling announcement a cave-in by Arafat to the U.S., as many Americans believe? “I didn’t change my mind,” said Shultz. “They made their statement clear.” Or was it an about-face by the Reagan Administration cleverly engineered by the P.L.O. peace campaign, as the West Europeans, Arabs and Soviets saw it? It mattered little who claimed victory when both sides had in effect converged on the same piece of reality: they need to talk with each other to advance their separate interests.

The U.S. lost no time following up on its commitment. The next day U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Robert Pelletreau, the “only authorized channel” for the discourse, telephoned P.L.O. headquarters in Tunis to arrange a meeting Friday at a state guesthouse in nearby Carthage. Pelletreau and a four-member P.L.O. delegation met for 90 minutes; afterward both parties called their first official talks “practical.”

As far as the U.S. is concerned, the first topic in an extended dialogue will be terrorism. The U.S. wants to serve notice on Arafat that it remains highly skeptical of his renunciation of the tactics that have subjected Israelis and others to decades of hijacking, bombing and murder. Washington will hold Arafat personally responsible for controlling his organization, and if he fails the U.S. will not hesitate, as President Reagan said, “to break off communications.” The U.S. also expects Arafat to condemn and dissociate himself from violent acts by renegades and to help bring any terrorists to heel.

– Beyond that, the U.S. wants to advance the dialogue toward the essential business of peace negotiations. “I view this development as one more step toward beginning direct negotiations between the parties,” said Shultz. The U.S. will make it clear that it does not recognize the P.L.O.’s self-declared independent state and will not adopt any of the Palestinian objectives in advance of peace talks with Israel. Pelletreau will have to impress upon the P.L.O. that it must convince Israel, and not the U.S., of its readiness to engage in serious negotiations. Nor will the U.S. cease its unflinching support for the Jewish state or let the P.L.O. divide the two allies. But Washington sees its official face-to-face talks with the P.L.O. as a chance to probe and define an acceptable Palestinian role in direct negotiations with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir denounced Arafat’s U.N. address as a “monumental act of deception” and called the U.S. decision a dangerous “blunder” that “will not help us, not help the United States and not help the peace process.” Even Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister who has struggled to devise a working peace plan of his own, considered the U.S. naive. “While other countries are expressing their views out of sincere hope, we express our views out of bitter experience,” he said. Israel has cause for its unyielding refusal to trust the P.L.O.: 24 years of terrorist violence.

Israel’s reaction has been confused by its domestic politics. Since the election Nov. 1, neither the Labor Party nor the Likud bloc has been able to muster a governing majority. Now, however, there is a greater chance that the two main groups will continue their paralytic unity coalition, if only to give cover to each other in handling this diplomatic bombshell. On one point they are already united: Israel will not alter its refusal to talk with the P.L.O. Both parties are bracing for a bumpy time with Washington. Ever the optimist, Peres suggested that the U.S. will soon wise up to its mistake and back out of a bad judgment. The dour Shamir offered little but bitterness last week.

To the Israeli public, the U.S. decision came as the loss of an anchor, the anchor that guaranteed the rightness of their attitudes toward the P.L.O. Only a whisper from the left judged the news positive. “There is nothing to fear from talking. We are strong enough to talk,” said Haim Ramon, a leftist Labor Party Knesset member. The pervasive Israeli distrust of Arafat has yet to be replaced by even the hint of a grass-roots movement to change Israel’s policy toward the P.L.O. Certainly no major politician was ready to consider any change in attitude. Few in Israel expressed relief, much less victory, over Arafat’s much belated acknowledgment that Israel had a right to exist.

In the West Bank, however, jubilant Palestinians toasted one another with mabrouk, the Arabic word for “congratulations.” To the foot soldiers in the intifadeh, the yearlong rebellion in the occupied territories that has won worldwide sympathy for Palestinian national aspirations, this was the first tangible victory. “If we succeeded in forcing America to sit with the P.L.O., we will force Israel to recognize the P.L.O.,” crowed a 17-year-old Palestinian activist from Jerusalem.

To the Arab states long pledged to the P.L.O., the U.S. move vindicated a trend they have encouraged in recent years: greater moderation and realism on the part of Palestinian nationalists. Even George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, leaders of two notoriously radical pro-Syrian factions within the P.L.O., hailed the American decision as a triumph for the intifadeh. But the renegade group of Abu Musa issued a veiled threat. “We fully reject the Arafat concessions and will prove our stand practically, in a way that neither Israel nor the United States would expect,” said a spokesman in Damascus.

It is precisely that ability to wreck the dialogue with one well-placed Molotov cocktail that makes this tentative and guarded rapprochement so fragile. Anti-Arafat radicals in the occupied territories are reportedly planning to launch attacks against Israeli targets to show that Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism does not apply to them. It may be cynical but it is not unthinkable to fear extremist Israelis might seek a similar escalation of violence to prevent a dialogue that they like no better. Another danger for Arafat is the one that has kept him on the move for more than two decades: the possibility of assassination by those who reject his views.

For Arafat, however, the gains made last week far outweigh the risks. Washington in effect recognizes the P.L.O. to be the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The implicit recognition marks a personal triumph for Arafat, who has been down so often but never out. His organization has been splintered by factionalism and scourged by armies from Jordan to Israel but never destroyed. He has promised his people much but ! never delivered. In 1982 he was drummed out of Lebanon, and just a year ago he was all but ignored at an Arab summit that consigned the Palestinian problem to the dead file. Yet a combination of events and his uncanny talent for survival have pushed him back to the top.

Most of all, the unexpected and unquenchable uprising in the occupied territories emboldened Arafat to take a chance. He risked losing control of the Palestinian cause altogether unless he could win the “children of the stones” some tangible gain for a year of pain. At the same time, the intifadeh blessed the Palestinians, and by extension even the P.L.O., with a legitimacy Arafat had never been able to earn. Perhaps the past 13 years of diplomatic isolation by the U.S. was simply the necessary learning period for the movement.

Arafat’s public commitment to cease terrorism was straightforward: “I repeat for the record that we totally and absolutely renounce all forms of terrorism.” Arafat also made a significant concession of substance in his Geneva speech to the U.N. He rejected absolutism in favor of “realistic and attainable formulas that settle the ((Arab-Israeli)) issue on the basis of the possible.” That is new and welcome from the P.L.O. Specifically, Arafat said the Palestinians would settle for two states in the Holy Land, one Palestinian and one Israeli, borders undefined. Those who do not trust him will recall the words of the 1968 Palestinian National Charter, which calls for the complete destruction of Israel. The P.L.O. has not renounced that covenant, but many Western diplomats were prepared to accept last week’s words as the operative policy.

The P.L.O. has made life more difficult for Israeli diplomats by publicly committing itself to a negotiated settlement. For years Israel was able to argue that it had no need to go to the bargaining table because no partner sat there. Now the Palestinians’ designated spokesman, however unlovely, may be there.

The U.S. had little to lose in testing the P.L.O.’s sincerity. The Jordanian option, the long-favored attempt by the U.S. and Peres to make King Hussein the surrogate peacemaker for the Palestinians, withered away last July when the King gave up all responsibility for the occupied West Bank. Washington’s stubborn holdout in the face of Arafat’s peace offensive had bound Uncle Sam in the unaccustomed straitjacket of the spoiler. Shultz’s announcement not only ended months of intense criticism from West European and Arab friends but also restored U.S. credibility and influence as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict.

Even American Jews were surprisingly mild in their response to a move many of them deeply mistrust. Most of them trust George Shultz as the best friend Israel ever had, and that seemed to help them see beyond natural fear to the glimmer of hope these events refract. In a rare divergence from the Israeli government line, the major umbrella organization of American Jews said it would not fight the Administration’s decision. “Knowing this man,” said Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “I believe he would like to produce peace in the area without impairing the security of Israel one bit.” But many U.S. Jews doubt the dialogue will work as planned. They believe, Abram warned, it will reveal once and for all that “the obstacle to peace is not Israel but Arab intransigence.”

Bush’s Middle East policy has yet to be articulated, but officials around him say he will be more flexible than his predecessor, without diminishing U.S. support for Israel. Yet the danger in a dramatic reversal of policy is that it creates expectations that cannot be fulfilled. The gap between what the Palestinians want and what the Israelis may give is as wide as ever. Perhaps most tragically, the P.L.O. may have evolved toward negotiating a settlement at a time when Israel is moving away. Despite what the Palestinians may believe, no recent U.S. President has been willing to muscle Israel to the bargaining table.

But the U.S.-P.L.O. dialogue has stripped away an excuse Israel has long hidden behind. The policy of not dealing with the P.L.O. has allowed Israel to avoid entering a negotiation certain to result in its losing pieces of Eretz Yisrael. Branding the P.L.O. as terrorist has been the most convenient and effective way of keeping the occupied territories in Israeli hands. As long as the U.S. did not talk with the P.L.O. either, Israel felt no need to address the fundamental trade-off of territory for peace. Now Israel may find it harder to avoid the issue. In the meantime, some prominent Israeli politicians are contemplating unilateral action, such as limited autonomy for the territories, as a way to deflect the growing pressure to negotiate a territorial trade.

Vernon Walters, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., spoke for the world last week when he said, “We are tired of this conflict and tired of their unwillingness to make fair compromises.” He was talking about both Israelis and Arabs.

There is no guarantee that a “substantive dialogue” between the U.S. and the P.L.O. can work a miracle where all past efforts have failed. And there is still reason to doubt Arafat’s Christmas conversion from gunslinger to peacemaker. No one knows if he can deliver. No one knows what the U.S. and, more important, Israel can deliver. But diplomacy, even the hard-nosed kind, is an act of faith. “Come, let us make peace,” Yasser Arafat said. Yes, let us.

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