Bethlehem, Israeli-occupied West Bank — Moderate Palestinians both in and outside the Israeli-occupied West Bank are going through a time of torment. They are caught in a trap from which no clear exit is visible.
They believe that refusal to negotiate now with Israel over the future of the West Bank may well spell permanent Israeli annexation. The resolution of the Palestine Liberation Organization's just concluded National Council (PNC) - much awaited on the West Bank - does not unequivocally rule out American-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace negotiations over the West Bank's future.
But while the possible time frame for such negotiations is shrinking rapidly, the PNC provided no concrete impetus for talks. Nor did it give a clear green light for a joint negotiating team of Jordanians and non-PLO West Bankers and Gazans which many moderates had hoped for (but few had really expected).
''The West Bank and Gaza were looking for resolutions which could be translated into action,'' says Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, one of the West Bank's most outspoken public advocates of a forthright PLO stand. ''Theory and words are no longer acceptable merchandise here.''
Such a PLO green light could conceivably still come, encouraging Jordan's King Hussein to enter talks with West Bank and Gaza moderates.
But with bitterness and despair, key West Bank moderates both at home and in Jordan acknowledge frankly that they are unwilling to go to the bargaining table without a clear PLO okay.
The brightest spotlight is on a group of six ''moderates,''
whose names are frequently mentioned as potential members of any joint Palestinian-Jordanian team. It includes: Mayor Freij, a Christian businessman and political pragmatist; Rashad Shawa, a former mayor of the city of Gaza, an elderly aristocrat who has long called for negotiations but was deposed from his post by Israeli authorities last year; Hikmat al-Masri, a Nablus businessman; Anwar al-Khatib, the governor of Jerusalem under Jordanian rule before 1967; and two elected West Bank mayors, Muhammad Milhem of Halhul and Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron, who were deported by Israel for political activity in 1980 and have since become Amman-based intermediaries between the PLO and European and American officials.
Behind them are others, less visible, who also feel the pressure of time on West Bank chances of ending the occupation. Participation of some of these men in any peace talks is vital to provide Palestinian input - without which King Hussein will not take part - while getting around US and Israeli proscription on direct participation by the PLO.
What then are the considerations which keep such men from striking out on their own, even without open PLO endorsement?
* Lack of legitimacy. Despite widespread fear on the West Bank and Gaza of permanent occupation, the PLO still commands broad-based support there as the titular Palestinian leadership.
''A PLO endorsement gives legitimacy to a West Bank delegation,'' says Mayor Freij. ''Without it anyone could come forward as the Palestinian representative, even the Village League (Israeli-backed and funded organizations).''
* Fear of being labeled a traitor. Informed sources say that PLO chief Yasser Arafat might have considered having King Hussein and certain West Bankers enter talks with tacit but not overt PLO approval. But conversations with West Bank moderates have revealed fears that if negotiations then failed, the PLO would deny having given such approval leaving Palestinian participants vulnerable to slurs or even assassination. West Bankers would run the same risk if they acted with no PLO signal at all.
''We want a signed statement by Yasser Arafat,'' said one West Banker, not one of the better known six. ''After all, this is the Middle East.''
* Lack of real encouragement from the United States government or from peace forces within Israel. ''Even if I were willing to make the personal sacrifice, why make it if it will be fruitless?'' said one West Banker.