• U.S.

The Case for Skepticism

4 minute read
Michael Kramer

Talking to Yasser Arafat is not like talking to Mikhail Gorbachev. During the past three years, in word and deed, Gorbachev has earned the West’s cautious trust. The INF treaty, the recent announcement of planned unilateral reductions in Soviet conventional forces, the removal of old-line naysayers suggest, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, that Gorbachev is a man with whom “we can do business.”

Arafat is another story. He and his confederates have raised double-talk to an art form. Seeming concessions have become traps, hard-line interviews in Arabic have contradicted hopeful statements in English, renunciations of terrorist acts have been undermined by evidence suggesting Arafat’s support for their undertaking. Even recently, when the diplomatic grapevine has been alive with speculation that the P.L.O. would finally recognize Israel’s right to exist, Arafat’s closest associates have telegraphed a different stance: continued adherence to a “phased strategy” whose odious goal is Israel’s eventual liquidation.

Originally adopted by the Palestine National Council in 1974, the strategy of phases was affirmed after the P.N.C. meeting in Algeria. “The P.N.C. decisions,” said Arafat’s deputy Abu Iyad on Nov. 28, “are a refinement of the . . . position adopted in the phase program 14 years ago. The ((P.N.C.)) session was meant to revitalize this program and to create a mechanism in order to get it moving.”

Two other worrisome facts support Israel’s skepticism about last week’s actions and lend credence to an observation Henry Kissinger has made privately: “If you believe that their real intention is to kill you, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that they would lie to you.”

For one thing, the P.L.O. has yet to amend its charter’s infamous Article 19: “The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time.” For another, Israelis remain fixated on an important date. In 1964, when the P.L.O. was founded, the very land most of the world now believes the Palestinians would settle for was still in Arab hands.

Given the hostile signals implicit in these facts and words, how should the U.S. proceed? In a decidedly nontraditional manner. With adversaries like Gorbachev, it is right and proper that negotiations begin without preconditions. With the P.L.O., however, it may be best to establish the bottom line in advance. As Kissinger suggests publicly, dealing with the P.L.O. requires a focus on substance, because “procedures will not give us a clue to whether there is a chance” for progress. The question requires an advance determination of the ultimate answer: What is Israel willing to give? What can it live with?

“We need to give the Palestinians a sense of reality,” says David Hartman, a liberal Israeli rabbi who has long favored talking directly with the P.L.O. “We have to give them a sense of what we can finally accept — parameters, like demilitarization, that are essentially nonnegotiable. It won’t be all they will want. But the Palestinians must first prove that they will actually live with us on the same land in peace, even with a two-state solution. They must prove that they will not use a West Bank state as a foothold to strike for the rest of Israel.”

Significantly, some prominent Palestinians have agreed. “We need to know the substance first because it goes to the limits of what we can expect from Israel regarding our self-determination,” said Bashir Barghouti, editor of the East Jerusalem paper al-Taliyah, last summer. “We need to know what we will be able to do on the land that’s given to us, no matter what the borders of that land are. The negotiating mechanisms — how we get from here to there — are secondary.”

Following this script is not only prudent; it can yield an important public relations benefit for both Washington and Jerusalem. To most of the world, and to many Israelis too, Israel appears to have its head in the sand. By declaring substantively what exactly they are willing to trade for peace, Israel and the U.S. can get themselves off a p.r. hook.

If the Palestinians reject an offer reasonable people can identify as forthcoming and courageous — as they have rejected every attempt at compromise for almost a century — no one could fault Israel for then saying, “Shalom. Come to talk to us again when you’ve grown up.”

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