An Arafat Blunder

WITH a wave of the oil weapon Yasser Arafat has made the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) credibility as a party to Mideast peace negotiations vanish. While visiting Tokyo this week, the PLO chairman urged Japan to reduce its trade with Israel. He cautioned that it would be a ``fatal mistake'' for the oil-dependent Japanese to ignore the wishes of the oil-producing Arab world.

First, Israel wouldn't yield a political inch to preserve trade with Japan. Second, Japan's not about to stop trading with Israel. Tokyo already showed it can withstand Arab pressure when it continued to buy Iranian oil during the Gulf war. Third, the Arab oil producers are in no shape in a glutted market to boycott anyone. Fourth, even if the oil weapon was real, Mr. Arafat is in no position to invoke it on command.

What he has done is bolster Israel's right wing, which doubts that Arafat was sincere when, before the United Nations General Assembly last December, he renounced terrorism and pledged his commitment to security for Israel.

Although Arafat is often derided as an incompetent diplomat, one has to assume he anticipated the effect of his Tokyo remarks. He must have thought the Palestinian cause would benefit from this toothless snarl.

Has the PLO leadership really failed to learn that reassurances of peaceful coexistence, not threats of annihilation, are its ticket to a seat at the negotiating table? Doesn't it realize that a sizable number of Israelis - quite possibly a majority - would be willing to talk to the PLO and trade land for peace if they weren't frightened by contrary signals such as those that emanated from Tokyo?

If Arafat was not voicing sincere hostility toward Israel, then one assumes he must have been trying to please his own hard-liners. Arafat is long used to employing facile statements and ambiguity to remain atop the PLO, where he has come to symbolize the Palestinian cause.

But symbolism isn't leadership, and competent, consistent leadership on the international stage is what the Palestinians need now. If Arafat can't deliver it, perhaps the Palestinians should replace him with someone who can.

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