How the PLO might help

What, one wonders, could give new impetus to the Middle East peace process and new hope that justice and equity are possible for all parties? In Israel's terms, security is the paramount issue. It is understandable that the Israelis are reluctant to give up what they see as a territorial advantage in the face of the offically proclaimed goal of the Palestine Liberation Organization to expunge the Zionist present from Palestine, or to negotiate with an enemy that continues to affirm this goal. In the PLO's eyes, however, its refusal publicly to recognize Israel's right to exist as a state is virtually the only trump card left to play in its long struggle to win self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs.

While the PLO's argument is as compelling as Israel's, both positions have resulted in stalemate. And the question arises whether the PLO could not further its cause more effectively by revising its National Covenant, that is, its basic charter, and acknowledging the permanence of the state of Israel.

This would not necessarily guarantee a change in Israel's position. But it might break the current impasse. By undercutting the diplomatic argument which Israel has been making these past years, the PLO would confront the Israeli government with a dilemma: alter its stance on dealing with the PLO or face what would certainly be the growing isolation of Israel in the world community. The Mideast plan proposed by the West European countries already is purring pressure on Israel and, while President Sadat does not wish that initiative to undermine his own control of the negotiations, he has encouraged it and on his recent visit to Western Europe mended ties with the Common Market nations.

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The PLO, by revising its charter, also stands to gain in Washington. The United States has said it will not negotiate with the PLO as long as it does not recognize Israel's right to exist.If that stumbling block were removed, some fair-minded officials believe, the Reagan administration would be in a position to begin aboveboard talks with the PLO. In fact the President might well consider among his options a declaration that the US is prepared to deal with the PLO once the covenant is amended. Looking back on 30 years of conflict, the Palestinians should reflect on how often they have missed an opportunity for peace -- not least of all their failure to accept the pre-1967 borders, which now they would be only too happy to have. With Israel nibbling at their remaining lands, will they again forfeit a chance for bold diplomacy? Or will their emotional hold on the present covenant bar them from seizing the initiative and at least forcing Israel's hand?

Where the US is concerned, it is still too soon for the new administration to have worked out a Mideast policy. But it is clear -- from Mr. Sadat's European visit, from Saudi Arabia's growing assertiveness, from actions in Israel -- that the Arab-Israeli dispute demands early attention. The basic question is: Will the US continue to pursue a policy sensitive to the concerns and requirements of both parties to the decades-long conflict? Or will it in fact tilt more toward the side of Israel?

The President, unfortunately, put himself on something of a limb when he declared recently that he did not regard the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "illegal." The President, fortunately, also stated that the Israeli policy of expansionism in the West Bank is "ill-conceived" and "highly provocative." This apparent shift of ground is prudent. Judging from Mr. Reagan's past pronouncements, he may indeed feel that Jews have as much right as Arabs to live in the Israeli-occupied areas. But, as he examines the problems closely, he is likely to become aware of the relationship of the US position on the settlements (which has been rooted in international law) to diplomatic efforts to achieve the full goals of the Camp David accords.

It is doubtful that Israel counts on a radical change in US policy despite Mr. Reagan's pro-Israeli stance during the election campaign. The contemplated sale to Saudi Arabia of sophisticated equipment for its F-15 jet fighters already points to a continuing US policy of "even-handedness" in the Middle East. Israel is probably resigned to such a sale and hopes, in turn, to acquire its own additional weapons from the US.But there is also little doubt that some elements within Israel have taken the President's comments as a green light for Israeli settlement policy.

Inasmuch as the light is all about land and who owns it, it is disheartening that Israel chooses to exacerbate the problem. Astonishing as it may seem, about 30 percent of the West Bank land is now estimated to be in Israeli hands, either through purchase or out- right expropriation. Plans are accelerating to begin work on 10 more settlements, and in the past month the Israeli military government has sealed off thousands of acres of so-called "state land" in the disputed territory. Many Israelis themselves abhor this approach as inimical to Israel's long-range interests. With some 700,000 Palestinians now controlling less than two-thirds of the West Bank and some 14,000 Israelis controlling one-third, it is small wonder that the Palestinians feel they have been sold down the river by Camp David.

Two givens remain in the equation: the Palestinians' right to self-determination and Israel's right to live within secure and recognized borders. It is toward these ends that M r. Reagan's diplomacy must be directed.

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