THE AMERICANS OPEN DIRECT TALKS WITH THE PLO AFTER ARAFAT REJECTS TERRORISM AND RECOGNIZES ISRAEL
AN OLIVE BRANCH
THE AMERICANS OPEN DIRECT TALKS WITH THE PLO AFTER ARAFAT REJECTS TERRORISM AND RECOGNIZES ISRAEL
Yasser Arafat adjusted his trademark kaffiyeh headdress, peered through thick glasses and started reading. In barely 10 minutes at the UN complex in Geneva last week, the PLO leader laid out his organization’s new philosophy of moderation. In his heavily accented English, Arafat affirmed the right of all states in the Middle East, including Israel, to “exist in peace and security,” and he declared that he “totally and absolutely renounced all forms of terrorism.” Then, under the gaze of several hundred journalists, he denied charges that the PLO’s peaceful rhetoric was only an exercise in public relations. Repeating himself three times for emphasis, Arafat declared, “Enough is enough.” In Washington, his words led to a stunning change in policy. Just three hours after Arafat finished speaking, Secretary of State George Shultz announced that the United States would open direct talks with the PLO— beginning a new chapter in the long search for peace in the Middle East.
The two sides acted swiftly to open negotiations. Last Friday, Robert Pelletreau, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, met with a high-ranking PLO delegation in an ornate Moorish villa in
a Tunis suburb—the first official contact in 13 years between the United States and the Palestinian group. As the talks began, Pelletreau, seated about 10 feet across a table from the PLO representatives, commented, “We are still too far away.” After the 90-minute session, Pelletreau described the opening discussions as “practical” and characterized by a “seriousness of purpose.”
The importance of the U.S. policy change was clear. Until last week, the United States had stood firmly beside Israel in its refusal to
undertake any dealings with the PLO—despite a growing international consensus that Arafat’s organization must be part of any eventual peace settlement. In one dramatic stroke, Washington’s reversal raised the prestige of Arafat and the PLO and dealt a severe blow to Jerusalem, leaving Israeli officials isolated— and angry. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir denounced the move as a “blunder that will not help us, will not help the United States and will not help the peace process.” At the same time, Shultz’s announcement set a new course for American policy in the Middle East just five weeks before George Bush is to replace Ronald Reagan as president. By making the difficult decision now, said one Bush aide, “Shultz has done us a favor.”
The American action surprised many world leaders, especially because it followed a pronounced public display of U.S. disdain for the PLO. On Nov. 26, Shultz labelled Arafat an accessory to terrorism and denied him the visa he needed to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly in New York City. In response, the assembly voted 154 to 2 to move its debate on Palestine to Geneva—at a cost of $528,000— in order to hear Arafat.
But behind the apparently frozen American policy lay a rapidly evolving series of indirect communications between the two sides. They culminated last week in Geneva with three days of intense diplomatic manoeuvring. Using Swedish and Egyptian intermediaries, American officials pushed Arafat toward making a clear, unambiguous disavowal of terrorism and an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist. When he finally pronounced the required words on Dec. 14—after failing to meet Washington’s criteria during his speech to the UN General Assembly the day before— Shultz immediately authorized the historic talks in Tunis.
American officials coupled that announcement with reassurances to Israel. Reagan declared that “we have not retreated one inch from the position of guaranteeing the safety of Israel.” But such statements provided little comfort to Israeli leaders, who were given just 30 minutes’ warning of Shultz’s announcement. Still, the U.S. decision appeared to open a small division among the country’s leaders. While spokesmen for Shamir, leader of the right-wing Likud bloc, ruled out Israeli talks with the PLO under any circumstances, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who heads the centre-left Labour Party,
was slightly less adamant. Peres maintained that the PLO has not truly renounced terrorism. But, when asked by reporters, he declined to say whether a new agreement being negotiated between the Likud and Labour in the wake of Israel’s deadlocked Nov. 1 election should contain a clause banning talks with the PLO forever.
The complicated diplomatic exchanges that led to the American action began in midNovember, when the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s equivalent of a parliament, held a stormy three-day session in Algiers. The council dramatically proclaimed the establishment of a Palestinian state—but also moderated its traditional commitment to the eventual destruction of Israel. It implicitly recognized Israel by endorsing UN Security Council Resolution 242, and it repudiated terrorism while still claiming the right to carry on “armed struggle” inside Israel and its occupied territories. While that represented a major shift for the PLO, American officials publicly dismissed it as ambiguous.
But Swedish diplomatic officials believed that they saw a significant chance for progress. Sweden’s foreign minister, Sten Andersson, a veteran Middle East expert, arranged a secret meeting in Stockholm on Nov. 21 between Khalid al-Hassan, the PLO’s third-ranking official, and a group of five American Jews affiliated with the International Centre for Peace in the Middle East, a left-leaning research group based in Tel Aviv. Andersson consulted with state department officials, trying to find out exactly what wording the U.S. administration wanted from Arafat in order to open talks with the PLO. On that basis, he drew up a statement that al-Hassan and the Jewish representatives signed.
Two weeks later, Arafat went to Stockholm and met the same members of the Jewish group, and on Dec. 7 they issued a joint statement. It went further toward meeting the American requirements, and Arafat said that in Algiers the Palestinian council had “accepted two states, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, in practice, Israel. Is that clear?” For the Americans, however, it was not. They declared that Arafat’s position was still ambiguous.
Still, Andersson said, he believed that the Stockholm statement contained all the elements that the Americans wanted from Arafat. And another opportunity for darifying the PLO position would arise in just six days when Arafat addressed
the UN General Assembly at its special session in Geneva’s Palais des Nations—a marbled complex overlooking Lake Geneva that was built in the 1930s as headquarters for the old League of Nations. Swedish officials again consulted with their counterparts at the U.S. state department, relayed Washington’s latest requirements to Arafat—and told the Americans that the PLO leader was prepared to meet their demands in his speech. Expectations for a breakthrough were high; the United States told Israel the day before the speech that it would start talks with the PLO if Arafat made the necessary statement. There was even widespread speculation that Arafat, in order to underline his new moderation, might shave off his habitual three-day stubble and wear a suit rather than his customary military-style outfit.
That did not happen. When he marched down the central aisle of the assembly hall, his right arm raised in a victory salute, Arafat was unshaven and wearing a smart khaki uniform. In his 80-minute speech, the PLO leader outlined a three-point peace plan—including an international conference convened by the UN and placing Israel’s occupied territories under UN supervision during the negotiations. And, addressing himself to the Israelis, he declared: “Come, let us make peace. Cast away fear and intimidation.”
Again, U.S. officials rejected Arafat’s words as unclear. As a result, Arab allies of the United States, led by the Egyptians, began exerting pressure on Washington. They were plainly concerned that a historic opportunity for a break in the Mideast stalemate might be lost— and that radical elements in the PLO might wrest control from Arafat if his moderate policies produced no concessions from the United States or Israel. Within an hour of the American rejection of Arafat’s speech last Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned his foreign minister, Ahmad Esmet Abdul al-Meguid, in Geneva and told him to urge Arafat to meet Washington’s exact conditions. Over dinner with al-Meguid, Arafat promised to do just that the following morning at his news conference.
Early on Dec. 14, Mubarak telephoned Shultz to say that Arafat was ready to make an unequivocal statement. Shultz told Mubarak what the Americans expected—and Mubarak’s officials in Geneva passed the message to Arafat. The PLO leader delayed his scheduled appearance for 9V2 hours while he consulted with his officials, Andersson and the Egyptians. Finally, at 8 p.m., he read the critical statement—and, significantly, he spoke entirely in English without the rhetorical flourishes that he normally adds in Arabic. “The Arabs have their own manner of giving a speech,” explained Andersson. “They use more words than we do.” He added: “Everything the Americans wanted was in Arafat’s speech. But it was split up and mentioned with other things. Chairman Arafat was more explicit and more clear at his news conference.”
The American reversal lifted the mood of gloom that had gripped the UN session. On Thursday, the General Assembly voted 138
to 2—with only the United States and Israel opposed—to call for an international Middle East peace conference. Canada and Costa Rica abstained. Canadiap officials explained later that the resolution referred to a new Arab state, which prejudged the outcome of the conference. In a second vote—carried by 104 votes to 2 with 37 abstentions, including Canada—the assembly voted to acknowledge the proclamation of the new Palestinian state that the Palestinian National Council declared last month. According to the PLO, 77 countries have already recognized the state or have announced their intention to do so.
Other nations hailed the American decision to talk to the PLO as a step toward peace.
External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that he “welcomes” the move. British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe announced that he is now also prepared to meet with Arafat. And Jordan’s King Hussein said after a meeting in Cairo with Mubarak: “I think the ice has melted. The peace process has started, and we’ll see it gain momentum in the near future, God willing.”
In contrast, most PLO officials expressed caution. Shultz, they noted, had emphasized that the United States had not recognized the PLO and was prepared to cut off talks if, in the American view, the PLO breaks its pledge to renounce terrorism. Washington also remains opposed to a peace conference. While “the stage for real work to establish peace has been set,” said Abu Bassam Sharif, the secondranking PLO leader, “it will be long, difficult and painful.”
In fact, Arafat faces severe strains within the Palestinian movement itself as he pursues his moderate path. He won important support last week when the leaders of two radical PLO factions welcomed the U.S. move as a victory
for the intifadeh, the year-old Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. But two extremist Syrian-based Palestinian groups outside the PLO umbrella denounced Arafat’s position—and vowed to continue their military struggle against Israel. “It is very likely that there will be new terrorist attacks,” said James Phillips, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Every time the peace process moves forward, there is more terrorism as some of the rejectionist forces try to throw the process off track.” Nor has the intifadeh shown any signs of dying down: two days after Shultz’s announcement, four Palestinians were killed in fierce street clashes in the West Bank town of Nablus.
But there was still a glimmer of hope. Even in Israel itself, where most politicians and citizens expressed shock at the American turnaround, there were some voices of optimism. Ezer Weizman, a Labour minister and a member of the Israeli team that negotiated peace with Egypt in 1979, said that Israel must adopt a new policy toward the PLO. “For years, we’ve been waiting for the PLO to change its attitude, and I believe this is a beginning,” he told Maclean’s. “Let’s talk to Arafat, and if we see in the process that he is shifty, that he is not trustworthy, we can always say no.” Added Weizman: “We have to find a way to finish off what we started in the 1970s, to find a way to peace with the entire Arab world. It may be that we can turn an enemy that is willing to talk peace into a nonenemy.” However distant that possibility seemed, it appeared last week that the United States and the PLO had at least decided to make a start.
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