President Sadat of Egypt no doubt knew in advance that the Reagan administration would not accept his urgings to engage in a direct dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. But he spoke out in Washington nonetheless. Partly, perhaps, to show his own people and other Arab leaders that he remains committed to the Palestinian cause. Partly, however, to impress on President Reagan a fundamental fact of life in the Middle East: the difficulty of making further progress toward a comprehensive peace without talking with the PLO and eventually engaging it in negotiations.
It must in fact strike many Americans as odd that the United States does not feel free to talk with whomever it will. No self-respecting nation boxes itself in diplomatically be refusing to deal with an outside party, friend or foe. Indeed the present situation is something of a charade, for Washington already has dealt with the PLO indirectly -- in ambassadorial contacts, in arranging protection of US personnel in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon, and, most recently, in arranging a cease- fire between the PLO and Israel.
Why maintain the fiction then? The diplomatic sticking point seems to be a US assurance given to Israel in 1975 that "it will not recognize or negotiate with the PLO so long as the PLO does not recognize Israel's right to exist and does not accept Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338." Certainly direct US talks with the PLO would give it some legitimacy. But they would not necessarily mean recognition -- a move which should require reciprocal steps from both Israel and the PLO. It would simply open the way to exploring the possibilities for such steps and negotiations. As Hermann Eilts, former US ambassador to Egypt, has written:
"Only through open US contacts with the PLO leadership will it be possible to gauge whether the PLO would be willing and able to participate responsibly in broader peace negotiations."
Mr. Sadat's comment that the US now has something on which to build should not be lightly dismissed. The PLO seems to have acted with responsiblity during the Lebanese cease-fire negotiations. Is it not in the US interest to encourage this posture, to help enhance the moderate rather than the militant elements in the organization? Establishing direct contacts with the PLO could serve this purpose. In any case, refusal to do so will not make the PLO go away as the organization recognize by the Arabs and the US allies in Western Europe to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. From a practical point of view, Washington's present circumscribed policy prevents it from dealing realistically with the Palestinian problem either bilaterally or in a multilateral forum.
The PLO, for its part, could immeasurably bolster its own position by an act of conciliation toward Israel. It could at the least issue a statement recognizing Israel's right to exist and broadly accepting the UN resolutions. Prime Minister Begin has said he will not do business with the PLO even if it does change its official line. But, what the PLO might lose in the way of a "bargaining card" by such a diplomatic demarche, it would surely win in greater diplomatic standing. The American people, in particular, would be reassured, knowing that the PLO would negotiate a peace under which Israel would be guaranteed its pre-1967 borders with some minor rectifications.
It all comes down to how serious everyone is about peace. As President Sadat himself demonstrated, it sometimes takes a move of heroic proportions to achieve even a limited step of progress. His words in Washington d eserve a careful hearing.