PLO trying to get Palestinian talks back on track

The current lull in attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is giving rise to a number of short-term but nevertheless improbable and shaky alliances. Israelis, Palestinians, and Egyptians -- uncertain and troubled by the future -- are seeking each other's comfort and reassurance in attempts to improve their respective political negotiating positions.

With elections in Israel now scheduled for June 30, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin agree on at least one issue: The Middle East will be better off with Menachem Begin than with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres at the head of Israel's next government.

As if kicking off the Israeli election campaign, Mr. Arafat has sent emissaries to Europe explaining that although Mr. Begin is a "terrorist," Mr. Peres's party program calls for "Palestinian genocide."

At the same time, after three days of talks in Cairo between the Israeli Labor Party and Egypt's National Democratic Party, Mr. Arafat has sought assurances from "traitor" President Anwar Sadat concerning the PLO's future in Middle East peace negotiations. And Mr. Sadat did not send the PLO representative home empty-handed.

The PLO has suffered several major diplomatic and political setbacks in recent months:

* The war between Iran and Iraq has at least temporarily shifted the focus in the Middle East away from the Palestine question.

* The conflict in the Gulf between two staunch supporters of Palestinian national rights -- Iran and Iraq -- both demanding that the PLO take sides, has put Mr. Arafat in an awkward diplomatic squeeze.

* Last fall's Madrid gathering of the Socialist International, shortly after discussions between Egypt and the Israeli Labor Party, acclaimed Mr. Peres as the "only viable force for peace in Israel."

The umbrella organization for social democratic parties in Europe and the third world adopted a resolution supporting the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and the Labor Party's advocacy of the "Jordanian option" -- a call for a solution to the Palestinian problem in the framework of a territorial compromise on the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. This resolution was supported by Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, one of the PLO's closest friends in Western Europe.

Mr. Begin's claim to Judea and Samaria, as he calls the West Bank, is cemented by a concerted drive to establish Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and by his intransigent attitude toward Palestinian self-rule. In contrast, Mr. Peres holds out the hope for greater Israeli flexibility in resolving the Palestine question.

"Begin is a cannibal. He wants to swallow us up and simply let us disappear, " one moderate PLO official said. "Peres is much more civilized, much more sophisticated," he added. "He wants to eat us with knife and fork, and that makes him much more dangerous."

Following Mr. Peres around Western Europe, a special PLO envoy, Issam Sartawi , attempted to convince his European interlocutors that in the final analysis, "There is no difference between the attitudes of Begin's Likud and Peres's Labor." Given Mr. Begin's straightforward refusal to negotiate the territorial future of the West Bank, the PLO much prefers the present Israeli prime minister as its adversary in attempts to resolve the Middle East conflict.

An English and a Hebrew copy of the Labor Party program in his hand, Mr. Sartawi argues the "expansionist nature" of the document:

* Article 29 describes the building of settlements in the territories occupied in 1967 as being of "educational, social, and pioneering value." Says Dr. Sartawi, "It promises, together with several other articles, to consolidate this noble activity and to crown it with the ultimate annexation of the settlement zones, including Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in flagrant contempt of international consensus."

* The areas the Labor Party wishes to annex constitute 40 percent of the total surface of the occupied territories and nearly 90 percent of the total arable land, including most of the water and other natural resources. Pointing to the "agrarian nature of the economy of the West Bank and the Gaza strip," Mr. Sartawi claims that the Labor Party will precipitate "an economic collapse, forcing a rapid depopulation of the territories which will ready them for potential annexation in a subsequent phase."

During the three days of talks late last year between a Labor Party delegation headed by Mr. Peres and close aides to President Sadat, the two sides , uninhibited by diplomatic protocol, attempted to chart a course for after the June elections in Israel and President Reagan's initial political honeymoon in the United States.

Sources close to these talks revealed to the Monitor that Egypt and Israel's probable future prime minister have agreed to implement the autonomy scheme initially in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peres will have a free hand to explore the Jordanian option -- even though both President Sadat and Mr. Peres are believed to doubt King Hussein's readiness to go along with it.

Among the alternatives being considered is an attempt to achieve a disengagement agreement between Israel and Jordan on the West Bank along the lines of the 1975 Kissinger-sponsored acco rds between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria.

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