Getting Talks Started

MIDEAST peace efforts invariably run into familiar roadblocks. One that has risen again, high as ever, is the question of who will represent the Palestinians in any negotiation with Israel. The position of Israel's government is that it won't sit down with anyone associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO's alignment with Saddam Hussein cemented that position even more firmly.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has made it clear that the political coloration of individual Palestinians is irrelevant so long as they have any ties to the PLO.

Palestinians have made it equally clear that they won't be told by Israel, the US, or other Arab nations who their leaders ought to be. Despite his miscalculations during the Gulf war, Yasser Arafat appears to have retained strong backing within the Palestinian community. Hints of continued moderation in PLO positions have been ephemeral.

So how can talks on a crucial part of any lasting peace - settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian differences - even begin?

Diplomats and scholars of Middle Eastern politics are weighing one possibility - a regional conference modeled, more or less, on the ongoing Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). A Middle East version, convened jointly by the US and USSR in Cairo, might bring together Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Such a conference would deal with regional security arrangements, including arms control, and with the relations between Israel and Arab states, as well as the Palestinian question. Preconditions would be out, and the limited participation and broader agenda should avoid the everyone-against-Israel scenario feared by Israeli policymakers.

Most of all, this might be one way to get the parties talking.

But would the Palestinians be willing to accept joint representation with Jordan? The current warm relations between Palestinians and King Hussein suggest the answer could be yes. Would Jordan be willing? The King's basic requirement is that he be asked by the Palestinians.

Would Israel talk to Palestinians with PLO connections if they arrived at the conference under a joint banner with Jordan? According to at least one knowledgeable Israeli diplomatic source, the answer is yes.

Nothing in the Middle East is simple. But idea of a regional conference just might offer a possible course through the complexities.

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