A white hearse carried Issam Sartawi’s casket through the streets of Amman last week, and the mourners lowered it into a tomb reserved for martyrs. The assassination of the senior policy adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat came on April 10 during a So-
cialist International conference in Portugal, and it was a blow to the voices of moderation in the Middle East. Sartawi was one of the few PLO leaders who urged recognition of Israel and coexistence. Furthermore, his death, on the very day that Jordan’s King Hussein announced he would not join peace talks based on the Reagan administration’s peace initiative, was a warning to moderate Arab leaders: radical Palestinian groups like the Damascus-based Abu Nidal faction, Sartawi’s killers, remain committed to terrorism in the
35-year-old war against Israel.
Hussein’s decision was a bitter end to U.S. efforts to move beyond the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty agreed to in 1978 at Camp David. Reportedly, Hussein and Arafat had reached accord in Amman earlier this month on the shape of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team that would negotiate the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The PLO— the sole representative of Palestinians, according to a 1974 Arab summit decision—was to retain a veto over Palestinians named to the delegation. However, before the agreement was signed the PLO leader took it to Kuwait, apparently to clear it with other factions.
The clearance never came. Instead, Arafat dispatched two emissaries to Amman, offering changes in the language that effectively repeated radical PLO demands for exclusive representation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The Reagan plan envisages something short of sovereign statehood: an autonomous West Bank entity linked by confederation to Jordan. While that association might lead to an independent Palestine, extremist wings of the PLO were clearly not pre-; pared to take the gamble.
In Washington both President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz denounced the PLO’s action but expressed understanding for Hussein’s resolve not to enter talks without Palestinian backing. Although Israel also rejected the Reagan plan, Washington firmly believed that the arrival of Hussein at the bargaining table would compel Prime Minister Menachem Begin to negotiate. The United States had even promised Hussein that Washington would pressure Israel for a freeze on the West Bank settlement if he would join the process. Shultz’s advice to Arafat last week was to “use it or lose it,” a euphemism for exploiting opportunities or watching them atrophy.
Washington’s dilemma is where to turn now. Reagan has invested personal prestige in his proposal and remains committed to it. But without movement from the Arab world, prospects are anything but good. Visiting Sweden last week, Arafat insisted that his consultation with Hussein would continue, and the PLO’s executive committee was scheduled to review its stance in Tunis over the weekend. But most observers believe that what PLO radicals vetoed once they can veto again and that the Reagan initiative was buried last week in a martyr’s grave in Jordan.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.