Negotiating With Eyes Open

Closing loopholes can help ensure that the PLO-Israel pact leadsto peace

THE dramatic scenes of reconciliation generated by the historic handshake between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin touched people throughout the world and brought to the forefront the latent power of human decency when a proper opportunity for self-expression is made available.

What happened on the White House lawn on Sept. 13 was deservedly a historic moment, when visionaries and realists shared a compelling congeniality. Yet massive promotion of the agreement, coupled with Mr. Arafat's unparalleled access to United States leaders, has created an impression that those who harbor doubts about the agreement are oblivious to the emerging global order and "the new regional balance of forces."

Those who do not accept too readily existing assumptions are "enemies of peace." A contrived polarization has ensued, propelling - unnecessarily, in my view - those who dissented or disagreed into confrontation.The impressive momentum of the PLO-Israel agreement should not preclude a clear perspective of the loopholes that can render it vulnerable, even reversible. The goal is to strengthen rather than undermine the agreement, to transform it into a rallying force, and avoid its potential for divisiveness.

It is important to note that, aside from the challenge to the agreement from Hamas and rejectionist groups based in Damascus, several important and independent members of the PLO Executive Committee and consistent supporters of Arafat resigned in protest or registered strong and active dissent. And in spite of the disparate composition of the opposition to the agreement, coalescence into a united front cannot be ruled out. For this reason, a legitimizing consensus should be ensured among Palestinians. Although unanimity is not imperative, the PLO leadership cannot pursue its present plans on the basis of a technical majority. On an issue of such gravity, nothing but a viable consensus will legitimize the PLO's decision.

The response of the world community, the projected relief of Palestinians to going outside the force field of Israeli power, the commitment shown by a resilient business and professional Palestinian middle class to invest, to reconstruct and to prove their mettle - all these contribute to justify the ebullience and hope that recognition of the PLO and the ensuing agreement engendered. In a way, many Palestinians decided that if this were the only available option, it would be treated as a first step.

While signing the accord was an inspiration to a substantial constituency of Palestinians, it was a frightening prospect for another significant component: the refugees in the camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and even within the occupied territories. For the refugees, the "historic" agreement was irrelevant, even detrimental to their legal and human rights as well as their national rights. That the agreement postponed addressing their fate would have been tolerable if an outcome were envisaged. The absence of any reference to a possible solution to their rights reinforced their sense of dispossession and disenfranchisement, further reigniting anxieties and fears about their destiny and tension with the population of the host countries. In Lebanon, in particular, this issue becomes more acute as social peace remains fragile and political balance precarious.

That major issues such as the ultimate status of refugees, Jerusalem, and Israeli settlements were shelved summarily for two years or more without even the outlines of a possible outcome underlines a perplexing insensitivity to the overall Palestinian situation. The prevailing view is that those who brokered the agreement were anxious not to push Mr. Rabin too far, the inference being that the disenfranchised Palestinians can be ignored if the stability of Israel's coalition labor government is at stake. The interconnections between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians were deliberately de-emphasized to accommodate the limited "digestive" capacity of Rabin's government.

Rabin's insistence that Syria prevented the Lebanese army from curtailing Hizbullah's activities was a ludicrous attempt to trap Lebanon back into civil strife and thus enfeeble the creative possibilities in the limited self-governing authority in Gaza and Jericho and subsequently, in the West Bank. A recurrence of civil strife in Lebanon, Rabin hopes, would enable Israel to convince the US and the world community that the Gaza-Jericho option was a "concession" on its part, rather than a minor and flimsy compliance with United Nations resolutions Israel has so persistently defied and violated.

TO add insult to injury, the US has undertaken a vigorous campaign to assure Israel's security and to end the Arab economic boycott. Nudging its friends in the Arab world to normalize relations before Israel withdraws from the occupied territories is exacting too heavy a price for recognition granted to the PLO. Whatever the incentives might be to support the PLO-Israel agreement, they should not be perceived as debilitating the sense of community among the Arabs and reinforcing Israel's hegemony in the region.There is an emerging feeling that breaking down the Arab world into dealing separately with Israel as exemplified by the Camp David accords, is the key to Israel's security and US tutelage of prospects for regional development and stability.

If this impression gains currency and peace becomes a humbling, rather than ennobling, experience for the Arabs, then the impact of whatever goodwill was generated on the White House lawn will rapidly dissipate.

Pointing to the loopholes in the agreement might ensure its progressive evolution. On the other hand, failure to recognize and address these loopholes could be a prescription for its unraveling.

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