JOHN BIERMAN November 28 1988



JOHN BIERMAN November 28 1988




The Palestine National Council, in the name of God and in the name of the Palestinian Arab people, proclaims the establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian land, with its capital in holy Jerusalem.

—PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, in Algiers, on Nov. 15

In most of the Arab world, the PLO parliament-in-exile’s declaration of independence—and its accompanying offer to negotiate and coexist with Israel—was a major event. Moderate Arab governments rushed to recognize the embryonic state, while the Saudi Arabian daily newspaper Al-Madina called it “a giant step” toward peace. But to officials in Washington, the declaration seemed

to be a relatively minor event. A spokesman for president-elect George Bush called it “a slight step forward.” Meanwhile, a state department spokesman said that, because the declaration lacked a “clear and unambiguous” recognition of Israel, it did not merit any change in U.S. policy. In Israel itself, a foreign ministry statement said that the PLO was hiding behind “ambiguity and doubletalk.”

Still, when the Palestine National Council issued its declaration at the climax of a tumultuous three-day meeting in Algiers, it was clearly a major event. For one thing, the PNC had apparently given implicit recognition to Israel by endorsing UN Security Council Resolution 242, which asserts the right of all countries in the region to “live in peace within

secure and recognized boundaries.” For another, the PNC had repudiated terrorism, except within Israel and the occupied territories. Both points represented a marked change for an organization that, for 24 years, had been committed to the destruction of the Jewish state and the recovery of all the territory of mandated Palestine, which Britain ruled from 1917 to 1948.

At the end of the week, the Soviet Union endorsed the proclamation of an independent Palestinian state, but—like Egypt—fell short of extending full diplomatic recognition. Still, at least 31 other countries did extend diplomatic relations to the newly proclaimed state. Many were Third World nations, and most were predominantly Moslem or had significant Moslem minorities. Among Western European governments, many were clearly impressed but none of them were willing to recognize the Palestinian state.

French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said that his government was “gladdened” by the PLO’S apparent new flexibility. His West German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, called it “an important step in the direction of a just and lasting peace.” And British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in Washington on a farewell visit to President Ronald Reagan, privately urged a more forthcoming U.S. policy toward the PLO. Her

spokesman said she had told Reagan that “when people do things that we like, we should welcome it.” In Ottawa, an external affairs department spokesman said that Canada would not comment on the Algiers declaration until it had studied the text and consulted allies.

Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip—the likely location of the Palestinian state if it ever became a reality—the Israelis imposed a stringent security crackdown to stifle so-called independence celebrations. But when they relaxed their grip at week’s end, street battles broke out and Israelis shot and wounded at least 36 Palestinians.

Israel and the Palestinians also competed for international support, and some Israelis clearly feared that their efforts would be blunted by internal political turmoil. In the wake of the deadlocked Nov. 1 general election, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir began negotiations to form a coalition government with four Orthodox religious parties that hold the balance of power—a prospect that has caused grave concern among Reform, Conservative and secular Jews in Israel and North America (page 25). For his part, PLO leader Yasser Arafat called on the United States to press Israel to enter negotiations, claiming that the PNC had shown “moderation, flexibility and realism.” He added, “If we are met with a rebuff, only God knows the outcome.”

Clearly, however, the PNC’s declaration was not enough to change attitudes in Washington, which will not deal with the PLO until it explicitly recognizes Israel and unequivocally denounces terrorism. Said Robert Hunter, the National Security Council’s director of Middle East affairs during the Carter administration: “The PLO is trying to get the United States to persuade Israel to be flexible, but people here in town say the PLO has got the wrong address. If they want to deal with Israel, the address is Jerusalem.” Still, Hunter added that presidentelect George Bush should actively explore the possibilities for Israel-Arab diplomacy. “He can’t take the leisurely attitude that Reagan has taken,” said Hunter. “There is too much happening out there.”

There may be a test of future U.S. attitudes toward the PLO within the next week, when Washington is expected to decide whether or not to grant Arafat a visa so that he can address the UN General Assembly in New York City. For the first time since 1974, the General Assembly would provide Arafat with a powerful platform to launch a wide-ranging appeal for recognition. But the Israelis, as well as members of American Jewish organizations, are urging the state department to deny him a visa.

Of the countries that had recognized the Palestinian state by week’s end, only two— Turkey and Cyprus—have diplomatic relations with Israel. But Greece, which also has relations with Israel, was expected to extend recognition soon.

The Turkish action was significant because Turkey is closely linked to the West through its membership in NATO and it has also applied for membership in the European Community. Greece has traditionally been sympathetic to

the PLO, but Turkey has been less so, and its chargé d’affaires, Ekrem Güvendiren, was promptly summoned to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, where, according to a ministry spokesman, he was told “in the clearest words possible” of Israel’s “disappointment, regret and dissatisfaction.” In reply, Güvendiren reminded the Israelis that Turkey had been the first Asian country to recognize the newborn Jewish state in 1948.

Like the Soviet Union, several other countries welcomed the Palestinian declaration without extending full recognition. One of those was Egypt, the only Arab state to have diplomatic relations with Israel. But despite warnings by Yosef Ben-Aharon, director-general of the Israeli prime minister’s office, that formal recognition by Egypt would violate the spirit of the 1978 Camp David accord and 1979 peace treaty, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on Saturday that his country accepts all of the PNC resolutions, including “the creation of the Palestinian state.” Still, some Arab diplomats predicted that Egypt was likely to extend formal recognition this week when Arafat visits Cairo for a special five-day conference on the occupied territories.

As foreign minister of Israel’s outgoing “national unity” government, Labour leader Shimon Peres was temporarily in charge of Israel’s diplomatic and public relations counteroffensive against the Palestinian state. Although he and Shamir, leader of the hard-line Likud bloc, differ profoundly on whether to exchange land for peace, they are both adamantly opposed to an independent Palestine.

Addressing foreign ambassadors last Friday, Peres said that the Algiers declaration did not advance the cause of peace but created new obstacles. Earlier, he told reporters, “Under the headline of moderation, what really happened was a more extreme position taken by the PNC.” He accused the PNC of deception in linking Resolution 242 to Palestinian self-determination and opting for a continuation of terrorism inside Israel and the occupied territories, while repudiating it elsewhere.

While the war of words heated up, divisions appeared within the Palestinian movement. Some radicals clearly disliked the PNC’s acceptance of Resolution 242 and its implied recognition of Israel, although they had agreed in advance to accept the majority decision. George Habash, leader of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said— after casting a “no” vote—that he was sure “the politics of moderation” would not bring better results than “the politics of principle.” And while Arafat—leader of the moderate AÍ Fatah group, which has the majority within the

PLO—avoided the issue, Habash told reporters flatly that the acceptance of Resolution 242 did not imply recognition of Israel.

Groups even more radical than Habash’s simply boycotted the PNC session and, afterward, condemned the result outright. “This is a black day in our history,” declared Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. “Only force can give the Arabs their rights.” Jibril’s group is one of a number supported by the anti-Arafat Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, leader of the only major Middle East Arab country besides Egypt not to formally recognize the new Palestinian state.

In the West Bank and Gaza, where the 11month-old uprising, or intifadeh, against Israeli rule has taken at least 322 Palestinian and 11 Jewish lives, some Arabs agreed with Jibril.

Said Sheik Ahmed Yassin, leader of Gaza’s Islamic resistance movement, Hamas: “By recognizing Resolution 242, we gave the Israelis something and got nothing.” But the majority celebrated their newfound, though still theoretical, nationhood. In Arab East Jerusalem, Hanna Siniora, editor of the pro-PLO daily AlFajr, said, “I feel the same joy I experienced at the birth of my first child.” And pro-PLO lawyer Fayez Abu Rahme called the proclamation “the fulfilment of a moderate dream.”

But such expressions of moderation clearly failed to impress the Israeli authorities, who took tough measures to prevent any overt celebration by the Palestinians. The number of troops in the occupied territories was doubled overnight, and the 650,000 people of the Gaza Strip were kept under a full curfew. Just the same, thousands of Gazans took to the streets when reports of the Algiers declaration were

broadcast at about 2 a.m. local time on Nov. 15. Chanting “Palestine, Palestine,” they set off fireworks, flew red, green, black and white Palestinian flags and played cat and mouse with Israeli army patrols. And while by daybreak the Israelis managed to enforce a sullen calm in both Gaza and the West Bank, the easing of security measures on Thursday led swiftly to a new round of violence.

Inside Israel itself, most of the 700,000 Arabs who are citizens of the Jewish state appeared to welcome the Algiers declaration with restrained satisfaction. It coincided with a nationwide strike of Israeli Arabs, ostensibly called to protest the demolition of 15 houses in the village of Taibeh because the dwellings had been built without permits. When asked if the strike was really a show of support for the Algiers declaration, Arab Communist MP Tew-

fik Toubi replied: “Of course. Do they expect our people to be neutral to such a historic step?” But although crowds gathered in the main streets of Arab towns and villages, no Palestinian flags were displayed and no tires were burned.

Plainly, Arafat and his supporters had introduced a significant new element to the complex Middle East situation. The intifadeh, which will mark its first anniversary on Dec. 9, will now almost certainly continue, its partisans encouraged by the Algiers declaration. And although Palestinian independence may be, in practical terms, as far off as ever, the PNC had given the rebels powerful new impetus just by proclaiming it.

JOHN BIERMAN with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and correspondents’ reports