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Reviving Israel's Peace Plan

Egypt tries to mediate while the US weighs giving Arafat a visa. MIDDLE EAST

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1989



JERUSALEM

AGAINST long odds, last ditch efforts are being made to breathe life into the latest effort to resolve the tenacious conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. An Israeli plan unveiled six months ago calls for elections leading to talks on the future status of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. But so far, the two sides have been unwilling to compromise on the ground rules for holding elections, leaving peace prospects in limbo.

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Diplomatic observers say that rescuing the proposal from the fate of earlier Middle East peace plans now largely depends on events in Cairo and Washington.

Egypt. Partly because it is trusted by both sides, Egypt has been thrust into an important mediator's role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

``Everyone is looking to the Egyptians to bail us out,'' says one Western diplomat in Israel.

The focus of Egypt's diplomatic efforts has been a package of 10 ``conditions'' designed to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the election plan.

Following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat was said to be poised to back the conditions, despite the fact that they omit any reference to a role for the PLO in future peace talks.

But Egypt's efforts could falter in the face of opposition by Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, partly because Mr. Shamir opposes the land-for-peace formula embodied in the conditions.

For its part, the United States backs Egypt's mediation role, but has declined to endorse the conditions outright. Israeli sources speculate that one reason is that open US backing could provoke a government crisis in Israel, since many Labor Party ministers have responded positively to the Egyptian conditions.

Failing agreement on its proposed conditions, analysts say, Egypt's last recourse would be to back creation of a Palestinian delegation to engage Israel directly on the as-yet-undefined details of its election plan.

Both Shamir and Mr. Arafat are believed to be reluctant but convinceable on the matter. The main sticking point will be the issue of including ``diaspora'' Palestinians - which Arafat wants and Shamir opposes - as the opening wedge to direct PLO participation in the peace process.

Such a delegation could prove the only viable means of getting to elections, perhaps even directly to negotiations. The alternative will be almost certain diplomatic stalemate, analysts predict.

The United States. While all parties acknowledge that the US is essential to any peace settlement, the Bush administration is now in the throes of an internal debate over just how far it should wade into the troubled waters of Middle East diplomacy.

One catalyst for the debate has been the issue of how to respond if, as expected, Arafat requests a visa to attend meetings of the UN General Assembly this fall.

One group of advisers, led by senior political appointees, is making the case to Secretary of State James Baker III that there is little to be gained and much to lose by issuing a visa, informed diplomatic sources say.

These advisers point out that the last time Mr. Baker took a risk for peace, by telling Israel in a major address last May to ``lay aside ... the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel,'' his only reward was a critical letter signed by 95 US senators. Granting a visa now, they say, would only provoke more congressional criticism and a crisis in relations with Israel, which insists that approving a visa would reward Arab extremism.