Washington — Behind the desk of Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, hangs a photo of him shaking hands with the late Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. It is a testimony to political pragmatism rare in a region dominated by political passions.
Mayor Freij, a short, portly, Palestinian businessman, a Christian in a predominantly Moslem society, has built a reputation as a political moderate. He has cultivated relations with Israelis and Western diplomats and diligently raised municipal funds from thousands of expatriate Bethlehemites abroad.
In short, Mayor Freij is exactly the kind of Palestinian American diplomats once hoped to woo into participation in stalled Israeli-Egyptian negotiations on autonomy for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.
But Mayor Freij has turned his back on autonomy. Instead, he recently issued a dramatic, and somewhat desperate, call via Western media to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Beirut, the official Arab-recognized spokesman for all Palestinians, to launch a peace initiative toward Israel involving ''mutual, reciprocal, and simultaneous recognition'' by the two enemies.
If his call is heeded, this would involve a PLO break with past positions almost as dramatic as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem. His plea comes while new US special envoy to the autonomy talks, Richard Fairbanks, is making his first solo trip to Israel and Egypt in the wake of stepped up US efforts to achieve some progress in the talks.
But Mr. Freij wants to bypass autonomy talks, which have foundered over lack of Palestinian and Jordanian participation, by means of a broad Arab-Israeli dialogue.
''There can not be any military solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis,'' he said in a telephone interview recently. ''The only solution is a political dialogue. There should be an initiative by the Arabs and the PLO to challenge Israel for peace on the basis of mutual recognition.''
The public response to Mayor Freij's ideas from fellow Palestinians has been less than enthusiastic. He has been backed by Rashad Shawa, the Mayor of Gaza, but criticized by most West Bank mayors. In Beirut, the PLO Executive Committee met to discuss Freij's statements; according to the British Broadcasting Corporation it disclaimed any call for recognition of Israel but issued no official statement or open criticism of Freij. However, in a pointed reminder that Beirut is in charge, it called on all Palestinians to abide by past resolutions of the Palestine National Council which preclude recognition.
Mayor Freij says he has received no threats following his statements, which, he says, undercuts claims by Israeli government officials that West Bank moderates are afraid to speak out for peace out of fear of assassination by the PLO. He notes that both he and Mayor Shawa have been making similar public statements for some time.
But Mayor Freij was careful to specify that ''it is up to Beirut (the PLO) to make the final decision, although we on the West Bank have the right to make suggestions.''
Mayor Freij's main aim was to underline rising West Bank fears about their future. Bethlehem has recently become the scene of repeated conflicts between residents and Israeli troops over student demonstrations, land confiscation, and blowing up of houses of families of suspected Palestinian activists.
Says Freij, ''time is serving Israel. Every day Israel is consolidating her presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Perhaps if we ring the alarm bell the PLO and the Arabs will try to do something. They must unite and have a peace plan.''
However, says Freij, desperation won't push West Bankers to accept autonomy so long as they fear it will offer them little more power than they already possess under occupation. American ability to persuade Palestinians otherwise is minimal, he says, because ''America has very little credibility among the Palestinians. So far they have failed to make their position clear. We want statements to come from the White House.''