Battle over peace: PLO, Begin tangle in impressing US

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials are dismissing as a ''gimmick'' reports that the Palestine Liberation Organization is softening its position toward Israel.

Any improvement of the PLO's image in the United States also would be awkward for Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who over the weekend began an American tour aimed in part at boosting Israel's sagging image following the Lebanon invasion. [The trip was cut short Sunday when Mr. Begin learned his wife had passed on. He flew home to Israel.]

''A public relations trick aimed at US public opinion,'' was how one Israeli official described the PLO's apparent move to soften its stand.

''All rumors that the PLO will recognize Israel are not true,'' said one Israeli official, referring to Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali's report to President Reagan that the PLO was not yet ready to recognize Israel's right to exist.

''This is not to take place for the time being,'' said Mr. Ali, whose recent meeting with PLO officials in Paris sparked rumors of imminent recognition.

The US has demanded that the PLO recognize Israel as a precondition for opening UScontacts with the organization.

The Ali remarks were a boon for Israeli officials who are totally disinterested in a softening of the PLO's position toward Israel. This is because even the most moderate PLO leaders want total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza and east Jerusalem as well as Palestinian sovereignty over these areas, while the Israeli government is committed to keeping them for religious, historical, and security reasons.

Israeli officials are well aware that genuine PLO concessions, especially outright recognition of Israel, could increase US pressure on Israel to compromise. So they are anxious to discredit signs of PLO moderation and gratified when they can use Arab disclaimers to prove their point.

But the media and the opposition Labor Party are paying close attention to the rash of signals from PLO and Arab sources in recent days which suggest the PLO may be on the verge of launching a peace initiative.

The conservative daily Maariv cited a report in the Cairo daily al-Ahram that claimed the PLO was ready for ''mutual and simultaneous'' recognition between itself and Israel in return for US willingness to talk with the group and to bring it into peace negotiations on an equal footing with other Arab parties.

Rafiq Natshe, the PLO's representative in Saudi Arabia, reportedly was present at the Paris meeting with Mr. Ali. Natshe said the PLO would not go beyond the declaration at the Fez Arab summit in September that called for the United Nations to guarantee security for all Mideast states.

It is doubtful that any new PLO policy could be finalized before next month's meeting of the Palestine National Council. Fatah pragmatists are likely to meet challenges from hard-liners at the meeting.

The US has said it will establish contacts with the PLO only after the PLO recognizes Israel and accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

In a Knesset (Israeli parliament) debate last week Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir charged that recent talks between Jordan's King Hussein and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat - which were aimed at establishing a Jordan-Palestine confederation - would only establish a steppingstone to an independent Palestinian state.

''How many times have (Arab states) decided on federations and they turned out not worth the paper they were written on?'' he asked. (United Press International reported last week from Tunis that Fatah had approved plans for such a confederation.)

When the Arabs speak of peace, Mr. Shamir complained, they mean it solely for Western consumption. The Arab statements, he said, are intended to induce the West to pressure Israel to return the West Bank.

Israel's Labor Party is also upset by PLO statements. Party leader Shimon Peres wants peace negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan and with West Bank Palestinians but not with the PLO.

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