Egypt's overtures to PLO weighed by both sides

More details are emerging about recent attempts by Egypt's President Anwar Sadat to open channels to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Those attempts centered on an extensive message delivered to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Beirut early in January by Egyptian man-of-letters and one-time leftist Abdul- Rahman Sherqawi.

Mr. Sherqawi has since admitted to a number of Egypt's government-controlled publications that his contacts with Mr. Arafat were carried out "with the knowledge and approval of Mr. Sadat."

Why is Mr. Sadat choosing this time to reverse his previous policy of ignoring the PLO's wishes in the mideast peacemaking stakes?

One answer comes from a leftist member of Mr. Arafat's own Al-Fatah guerrilla group, veteran central council member Nimr Saleh (also known as Abu Saleh). Writing in the leftist Beirut daily As-Safir, Abu Saleh argues that political changes in the two other countries (Israel and the United States) that are parties to the Sadat-inspired peace process have given the Egyptian President cause for serious thought.

In a nutshell, Abu Saleh says, the defeat of former President Carter in the US election, and the widely expected defeat of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the coming Israeli election, could threaten the basis of the trilateral Camp David process.

President Reagan, since his election last November, has stressed the role of Jordan in any peace efforts. so have leaders of the Labor Party expected to come to power in Israel this summer.

But Mr. Sadat reiterated to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in Cairo in late December that he saw no role for Jordan in the present stage of negotiations.

So deeply opposed is Mr. Sadat to what has come to be known as the Jordanian option that he now is seeking to play "the Palestinian card" against it, Abu Saleh surmises.The stocky, white-haired Al-Fatah guerrilla veteran took part in the plenary talks between PLO leaders and the Egyptian delegation accompanying Mr. Sherqawi, but not apparently in the latter's more private talks with the PLO chairman.

Abu Saleh wrote that the Egyptian visitors argued strongly for convening a session of the pan-Arab Front for Participation in the Palestinian Revolution. But now, Abu Saleh accused, the Egyptian delegation, whom he ridiculed as "fake leftists," sought to use the participation front to bring the PLO closer to the Egyptian regime.

The PLO team, Abu Saleh said, had been horrified at the proposal, and had refused to go along with it.

"The PLO would not necessarily be wrong to go with Sadat rather than the Jordanian option," one Lebanese leftist intellectual commented. "At least the Egyptian-Israeli autonomy talks are theoretically open-ended as regards the fate of the occupied territories, while the Jordanian option as defined by the Israeli Labor Party is very, very limited."

For now, PLO, leaders would clearly wish a plague on both these houses. But the alliances within the Arab world on which they once relied for effective action are in bad shape. In particular, the anti-Sadat Arab consensus fashioned in condemnation of the Camp David accords has been rent in two by opposing preferences in the continuing Gulf war between Iran and Iraq.

The only alliance the PLO now feels it can count on is the hard-line "steadfastness front" composed on Soviet friends and allies in the Mideast. Monitor contributor Olfat M. El Tohamy reports from Cairo:

Egypt is seeking ways of cooperating with the Palestine Liberation Organization on grounds that they have some common objectives. For example, they are in the same boat as far as the possibility of Jordan actively participating in talks on the Palestinians' future sooner than was expected.

Egypt and the PLO have unequivocally voiced their rejection of the so-called Jordanian option, a suggestion made years ago by the Israeli Labor Party and lately encouraged by the new US administration. This option would allow for the return of most of the occupied West Bank to Jordanian hands.

Egypt and the PLO, both ultimately seeking the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, share an interest in preventing Jordan from stepping in to swallow up that area.

The idea of coordination between Egypt and the PLO can be regarded as the Egyptian leadership's immediate reaction to advancing the date of Israeli elections to next July. This step, which raises the possibility of the Labor Party taking power in Israeli in the near future, represents a threat to the major role Egypt wants to continue playing in the Middle East peace process.

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