The PLO's opportunity

In their extraordinary joint interview former Presidents Ford and Carter gave the Palestine Liberation Organization an extraordinary opportunity. Never before has the PLO received such favorable American attention. For all the umbrella group's terrorist elements, a world spotlight was put on its moderate, antiviolence members, on its essential role as the Palestinians' representative with which the United States will evetually have to talk. It is hard to imagine a better chance for the PLO to rise to the occasion and do its part to make such talks possible. This means recognizing Israel's right to exist, the condition long imposed by the US and reaffirmed this week.

Withholding recognition of Israel has been seen as the PLO's only bargaining chip. The question is asked of hot it can recognize Israel when it is not recognized by Israel. Yet international opinion is much on the side of ensuring the rights of the Palestinians. Once into talks with the US, their representatives would have a strong case to make -- or else it would not be a strong case now either.

There keep being signs and portents that PLO leaders may already be easing their position against recognizing Israel. The latest hints appear in reported private conversations by Yasser Arafat on his trip to Japan. Also, by openly supporting Saudi Arabia's recent Mideast peace plan, which would guarantee the right of all states in the region to "live in peace," he implicity seems to be accepting the existence of Israel.

Why not seize the day, go public, and get past the recognition question to substantive peacemaking? Mr. Carter noted that, after all the Arab-Israeli wars , the only Arab to win back territory was President Sadat -- who chose the path of peace.

Arguments have been made for simultaneous recognition by Israel and the PLO; for simultaneous recognition by the PLO and direct contacts between it and the United States; or simply for the US's right to talk with whomever it chooses without preconditions. Another alternative, as long as the PLO is formally excluded, is to provide more encouragement for the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories to participate in the peace process, even though they might seek to avoid conflict with the PLO by consulting with it in the background. No possible path toward completing the peace process should be overlooked.

But the PLO, in contrast with its scornful cries about peacemaker Sadat, could take the initiative and gain some of the same kind of credit his peacemaking initiatives have won. Even among Arabs. The Carter-Ford interview brought out that, behind the scenes, many Arabs support the peace efforts more than their rhetoric suggests. At the moment the US seems readier to speep the flow of arms to troubled areas than to respond as immediately to the harder task of forging peace. But, with President Reagan declaring US openness to talks with the PLO if it recognizes Israel, how could he refuse once the PLO did so? This is a moment to show that it is not beyond the bounds of possbility for the PLO to be remembered one day more for peace than for terrorism, even as Sadat is remembered more for making peace with Israel than making war on it.

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