Washington — Where to now on the Middle East? Yasser Arafat has moved closer to the United States' conditions for a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
``Tuesday's speech was probably the best Arafat's ever given,'' says an administration Middle East hand.
But, he adds, Washington's expectations were dashed when Mr. Arafat pulled back from what the US had been led to believe would be clear and unambiguous acceptance of US conditions for dialogue: recognizing Israel's right to exist; accepting UN Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for negotiations with Israel; and renouncing terrorism.
The Swedish government had given Washington passages from Arafat's draft speech which clearly met the US conditions. The administration took the message seriously. It began preparations to begin a dialogue right away and so forewarned Israel.
The day after the speech, however, one senior US official lamented that Arafat ``is impossible'' to deal with and said that recent events left a ``high degree of skepticism'' about his intentions.
Another US specialist adds, ``The door is still open, but we aren't going to give Arafat the legitimacy of a dialogue with us unless we are on solid ground.''
Some in Washington believe the PLO leader hesitated because of opposition from more-radical elements in his organization. Others say he may well want to hold something back for the new administration. But well-placed officials say he missed a real opportunity.
``Arafat will regret not saying more,'' says one. ``Not only was the administration ready to go, but it would have been under the auspices of Reagan and Shultz. This offered protection from domestic criticism of selling out Israel, which the new administration won't have.''
``It would also have caught Israel with its bed unmade, between governments,'' the adviser says.
Beyond these debates, however, US policymakers and advisers are looking carefully at what the Bush administration should do to move the broader peace process along. There is sharp disagreement on whether pursuing a US-PLO dialogue is the way to go and on what it would accomplish.
``Yes, if the PLO accepts our conditions, we have to talk,'' one administration specialist says. ``But it could well be the equivalent of crashing through a door and running into a brick wall.'' There are no assurances it will move the peace process forward, he says.
The gap between Israel and the PLO remains large. The PLO wants recognition as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, agreement to convene an international peace conference, and the granting of an independent Palestinian state. A Likud-led Israel opposes all three.
One school of thought argues that the US should focus on what is happening in the occupied territories, rather than on the PLO.
It is pressure from the territories that is forcing the PLO to be more realistic, says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He and other specialists say this pressure could be weakened if the US prematurely begins a dialogue with the PLO. More broadly, they argue, it is the territories' inhabitants who are the best hope for becoming a Palestinian leadership with which Israel will be willing to deal.
This school of thought argues that the US should examine non-traditional approaches to solving what has become essentially a conflict between Israeli and Palestinian communities since the uprising in the territories began. Only as means can be found to build confidence between those communities, they say, will the stage be set for more traditional diplomatic peace negotiations.
One problem, says a senior US official, is that ``this approach leaves unanswered exactly how the US can promote reconciliation between the two communities.''
That is in part why a second group of Middle East experts argues for focusing on the PLO. Despite its flaws, they say, the PLO is and will remain the chosen vehicle for the Palestinian people. While Israel remains politically stalemated, they say, the PLO is evolving.
William Quandt, former Middle East adviser to President Carter and currently a Brookings Institution specialist, says the US should undertake an active exploration and testing of the PLO. He suggests that over the next six months to a year, this process might be able to produce a credible PLO stance as the basis for moving toward negotiations with Israel.
Talking to the PLO will not necessarily ease the pressure on it to evolve, Mr. Quandt says, and it could help. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he points out, talked to the US for quite a while before he was willing to talk to Israel.