Arafat's Plan Offers Hope for a Mideast Peace

A COMEDY now touring California with the famous San Francisco Mime Troupe is a testament to Arab-Jewish dialogue. The thread that connected the nine Arab and Jewish writers who jointly wrote the play was their support of the peace initiative declared by the Palestine National Council (PNC) last year. Masterminded by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the peace proposal came after the start of the popular uprising or intifada. The explicit call by the intifada leaders for recognition of two states freed Mr. Arafat to mobilize his peace forces.

The Bush administration rejected the PNC call for two states and is alone in support of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's offer of limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Shamir refuses to meet with any PLO delegation and insists on electing an ``independent'' leadership. Shamir's offer is nothing more than an ancient delay tactic. In 1976, Palestinians elected such leaders, and all were openly supportive of the PLO and independence. Eventually they were deported, murdered, or dismissed.

The PNC peace proposal has effectively legitimized Israel's claim to 77 percent of the Palestine of 1947. Even the United Nations, in UN Resolution 181, which gave birth to Israel in 1947 gave only 55 percent of Palestine to the Jews. It is important to realize that the intifada leadership initially called for two states based on Resolution 181.

Arafat's offer achieved few results apart from recognition for an independent Palestine by 80 third-world countries. He challenged the mainstream Palestinian factions to support the two-state solution. But his efforts pushed Israel further to the right in rejection of any territorial compromise. Religious fundamentalists in Israel gained power and the settlers are more militant now than ever.

He received little from the Reagan/Bush administration. One gain was that Secretary of State George Shultz reversed a rule instated by Henry Kissinger banning open communication with the PLO. But the PLO information office in Washington was not reopened, and Secretary of State James Baker initiated a bitter battle to keep the UN from recognizing the PLO as a full member.

Arafat's peace proposals were met with some skepticism in the Arab-American community. Many held out for a single, democratic, secular state for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. But the failure to achieve this in 42 years of war prepared the way for Arafat's efforts. And how can Arab-Americans talk of a single state from a comfortable distance while Palestinians languishing in refugee camps or dying in the intifada are prepared to accept two states?

But even the Arab-American peace movement would have preferred to see Arafat's conciliations as part of an international conference supervised by the UN and not given unilaterally with the US playing the partisan mediator. The lack of progress since last December has been unsettling for Arabs who reluctantly supported the peace proposal.

A serious loss for Arafat is that of imminent third-world recognition of Israel. The Soviet bloc and most independent African and Asian countries have used their non-recognition of Israel as a tool to push for Palestinian statehood. But PNC recognition of Israel has opened the way for these countries to recognize Israel before the debate begins. Arafat will effectively loose a powerful lobby too early in the negotiations.

Perhaps Arafat's most serious loss is yet to come. It is likely that Israel and the US will push for a separate Israeli-Palestinian peace excluding Syria and Lebanon. This precedent for a separate peace was set during the Camp David negotiations. The United States is a partisan mediator and the Soviet Union will be allowed limited involvement only after it improves ties with Israel. Without UN and Arab League input, the most likely outcome will be for Arafat to accept Shamir's plan as a face-saving gesture.

By bringing about this second, separate peace, Israel will have removed the most embarrassing and visible obstacle to its occupation of Arab lands in 1948 and 1967. Thus, a separate peace will make the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon that much more difficult to effect. This will create further tension between Arafat, his neighbors to the North, and those Palestinians not prepared to accept an even smaller Palestine. Arafat's efforts will be rejected as the Arab League rejected Anwar Sadat's separate peace in 1979. In essence, Arafat may be signing his own death certificate.

It is unfortunate that the PNC peace initiative has been forgotten by the US. If Arafat is forced to accept the Shamir plan, he will lose the unity he currently commands and moderates will lose out. Israel and the US will then have succeeded in discrediting Arafat, and the only hope for a Middle East peace.

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