Israelis feel vindicated by Hussein speech. But many fear King's tough line on PLO leaders closes options for talks
Jerusalem — Israeli officials say they feel vindicated by King Hussein's public denunciation of the Palestine Liberation Organization's leadership. In a televised speech Wednesday, the Jordanian King went ``further than anyone had anticipated'' in his criticism, a senior Israeli official said yesterday. The King announced he was ending his partnership with PLO chief Yasser Arafat to work toward peace with Israel.
The initial reaction of Israeli officials across the political spectrum is: ``I told you so.'' Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Thursday that Israel's opposition to any PLO participation in the peace process has been vindicated by the very man who made that participation the focus of his efforts for the past year.
But there are also real concerns among Peres's Labor Party colleagues that Hussein's tough speech leaves no options open to continue the process toward talks.
That is bad news for those around Peres, who were counting on a breakthrough in the peace process to bring about a collapse of the coalition government. It now seems clear that no such breakthrough will occur in time to prevent the scheduled rotation of the premiership to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the hard-line Likud bloc, in October.
Hussein's speech, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Avi Pasner, ``confirms what Israel has always said about the PLO, namely, that the PLO is an obstacle to peace, does not contribute to peace and cannot be a partner to the peace process.''
But virtually no Israeli officials believe that Hussein's disappointment with Mr. Arafat will lead him to negotiate alone with Israel. Hussein specifically rejected the notion that he would proceed toward talks either by himself or with non-PLO Palestinians from the West Bank.
That assertion has encouraged Palestinians. Several Palestinian leaders on the Israeil-occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem said Thursday that while they were disappointed with Hussein's speech, they were convinced that the Jordan-PLO rupture was not permanent.
``We have had ups and downs in the past -- this is not the first time,'' said Hanna Siniora, editor of a pro-PLO newspaper. ``The Israelis have to understand that they cannot count on the Palestinians floating toward an agreement with Jordan that excludes the PLO. The West Bank is wholly supporting the position of Mr. Arafat.''
Mustapha Natshe, deposed vice-mayor of Hebron, said the Palestinians would support Arafat's refusal to relinquish the PLO demand that the United States recognize self-determination as a basic Palestinian right. Hussein, in his speech, seemed to support the US position that the issue of self-determination could be discussed during an international peace conference, but could not be made a pre-condition by the PLO for its participation.
``We think that Mr. Arafat and the PLO Executive Committee are asking just demands,'' Mr. Natshe said.
One angry Palestinian businesman said that he agreed with only one point the King made. ``[Hussein] was right when he said there is no trust. The people on the West Bank and the PLO do not trust Hussein,'' he said.
Matti Steinberg, an Israeli expert on the PLO, said he was ``distressed'' by the speech, which he said marked the end of Hussein's efforts to persuade the PLO to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the basis for peace talks. The resolution enshrines the concept of exchanging land Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war for a peace settlement with its neighbors.
Jordan, the US, and Israel accept 242. The PLO rejects it because it does not refer to the Palestinian people specifically, but rather to a need for addressing the ``refugee problem.'' Dr. Steinberg said it is now clear that 242 is a nonnegotiable stumbling block for the PLO. ``I was distressed, because . . . without a basic change in the Jordanian position we are stuck,'' he said. ``I believe that it is in the vital interest of Israel that a political process be initiated to determine the fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Our external affairs are intermingled with our self-image, our Jewish character. If the political process is stuck, it means that Israel will be a bi-national state.''
The Israeli official who asked not to be identified, said he was more optimistic than Steinberg, but felt Hussein's speech left many unanswered questions. ``It was so blatantly anti-Arafat,'' he said. ``Why did he do it? I believe that more than ever before, he was calling on the leadership of the West Bank to go without Arafat and this was much more than anybody had anticipated.''
But other analysts believe Hussein's appeal to West Bank Palestinians was made in hopes of getting them to persuade Arafat to change his position. Steinberg believes that even should West Bank Palestinians try to change Arafat's mind, their efforts will fail. ``It is hard to criticize the PLO for not being constructive in not accepting 242. It is not constructive to commit suicide,'' he said. PLO leaders fear that they will accept 242 and even an invitation to an international conference only to be left out when Israel and Jordan begin bilateral talks, he said.
``It is really naive to urge West Bankers to put pressure on the PLO,'' said Saeb Erakat of An-Najah University in Nablus on the West Bank. ``He [Hussein] has no alternative but to put the [Feb.11] accord back together again. He can't do anything without Arafat or the PLO. He knows he can't have a different PLO leader.''
Most Palestinians interviewed stressed the immediate need to begin efforts to reconcile Hussein and Arafat. Several predicted that Arafat would visit Amman soon to try to patch things up. But this time, a Western diplomat said, reconciliation may be hard to come by.