TUNIS — A senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization says the PLO is willing to begin direct talks with Israel without preconditions regarding their final outcome. In the past, leaders of the guerrilla alliance have said that they would not talk with Israel unless Israel agreed in advance to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now, even without that guarantee, ``we are ready to go into preparatory talks under these circumstances,'' says Salah Khalaf, the No. 2 man (after Yasser Arafat) in the Al-Fatah faction which dominates the PLO.
However, an independent state would still be the PLO's goal in such talks: ``But if it becomes clear that they are not going to lead to an independent state, there would be no reason to go on,'' Mr. Khalaf says.
His comments (excerpts at left) were made as Israel comes under increasing pressure at home and abroad to begin direct negotiations with the PLO.
The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has adamantly refused to talk to the PLO, which it considers to be a terrorist organization. But a report by the head of Israel's military intelligence, leaked to the Israeli press and reported on Monday, concluded that no solution is possible to the 15-month Palestinian intifadah (uprising) without talking to the PLO, which most Palestinians regard as their only legitimate spokesman.
Last week, United States Secretary of State James Baker III stated that unless Israel can come up with an alternative - a prospect most experts deem unlikely - it will have to talk to the PLO.
In an interview at his residence here, Khalaf said the PLO would regard direct talks as an opportunity to convince Israel to agree to an international Middle East peace conference, also long-resisted by the Israeli government.
``We would see direct talks as preparatory meetings for an international conference, whether they accept it this way or don't accept it this way,'' said Khalaf. A former PLO hardliner, he is now considered one of the staunchest backers of a shift toward moderation initiatied late last year by PLO chairman Arafat.
Bassam Abu Sharif, a senior aide to Mr. Arafat, adds that once direct talks started, they could become the main form for negotiation, potentially reducing the international conference - in which all parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute would participate - to a ratifying role.
``If the two-state solution is accepted by Israel, then the form in which we reach agreement is relatively unimportant,'' says Mr. Abu Sharif.
Israel's refusal to talk to the PLO and the PLO's insistence on prior acceptance by Israel of the principle of an independent Palestinian state are considered the last major obstacles to setting the Mideast peace process in motion.
Another major hurdle was cleared last December when, following Arafat's decision to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism, the United States agreed to open a dialogue with the PLO.
On Wednesday, US and Palestinian negotiators met in their second formal session since December. US Ambassador Robert Pelletreau said the two sides discussed ``substantive issues,'' but he gave no details.
Conversations earlier in the week with several top PLO officials suggest that, three months after the start of the dialogue, thinking within the organization follows three main lines: disappointment with the US; a conviction that the PLO has made enough concessions; and a feeling that time is running short.
These officials express a deep sense of disappointment over the progress of the dialogue which they say the US had reduced to a series of lectures on terrorism.
``If the US wants to start something, it's given few hints so far,'' complains Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO's ``foreign minister.''
At this point few ranking PLO officials appear interested in giving up on the dialogue, especially given the high price paid to achieve it. But, as one senior PLO source explains, ``There's a general impression that the PLO is wasting its time.''
Following a second main line of thinking, these officials say the line has been drawn on further concessions to create a viable peace process.
``What more can the PLO deliver?'' asks chief spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman, responding to a question on reciprocal confidence-building measures proposed by the US. ``Before we go forward we have to have their answer to what we said in Algiers and Geneva'' - where the PLO implicitly, then explicitly, recognized Israel.
Top PLO sources say what they want from the US now is agreement on broad principles including an international conference and an independent state, not discussions on interim measures.
``It's time for principles over details,'' says Mr. Kaddoumi, ``Are the Israelis ready for an international conference? If not, what shall we discuss?''
``The two-state solution is the cornerstone of the whole issue,'' adds Mr. Rahman. ``All other issues are details.''
In particular, these officials rule out all concessions that would require scaling back the uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip unless linked to what Abu-Sharif describes as an ``alternate solution'' (based on acceptance of an eventual Palestinian state).
``We cannot stop the uprising,'' says Kaddoumi. ``Without the intifadah, people have no ears to listen to the PLO.''
Finally, senior PLO sources express confidence that, for now, time is on the side of the PLO. With Jews inside and outside Israel deeply divided, with the morale of the Israeli Army low, and with strong international pressure for Israeli concessions, they say, Israel will eventually have to talk with the PLO.
But these same officials also acknowledge that Arafat has a finite period to show that concessions made to advance the peace process will produce results.
The longer the diplomatic stalemate goes on, the more it plays into the hands of Palestinian radicals, notes one senior PLO source. Without some concessions, Arafat's peace drive will collapse, the official predicts.