Still the heart of the matter

With the hoped for departure of the PLO fighters from Beirut, the United States is looking toward the next steps to bring a more permanent stability to the troubled Middle East.

Any such effort must deal with a difficult and, for many, an unpalatable issue: the future of the Palestinians.

Basically, this is what the fighting in Lebanon has been all about. The end of that fighting and the dispersal of the fighters does not end the problem. It merely writes ''finis'' to a Palestinian military option that was unrealistic from the beginning.

The issue involves more than the question of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. One of the major reasons for the lack of broad Arab support for the two most significant efforts of the last two decades, on Resolution 242 and the Camp David accords, was the failure of both to address the broad question of the Palestinians. The war in Lebanon has illustrated again the centrality of that issue.

Whatever may be the logic of the situation, the fact is that no Arab country outside Egypt can give its support to a peace proposal that does not deal with the Palestinian question, including not only Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but those dispersed throughout the Arab world. Even Egypt insisted that the Palestinian question must be an integral part of its own approach to peace; it is doubtful unless the broad Palestinian question is faced.

Any effort will encounter strong Israeli resistance. There has been a consistent effort by many Israelis to deny the concept of a Palestinian. Israel will claim that other Arab countries do not want the Palestinians and may not even want a Palestinian state. The present Israeli leadership will make every effort to make the world accept their position that the visible Palestinians are Soviet-backed terrorists now crushed and contained by the Israeli military force. To the most hard-lined in Israel, there is no need for Israel to recognize any special status, either for those inside or outside the old boundaries.

Whatever the arguments, the Palestinians are a people who feel dispossessed and increasingly isolated. Many have found homes and livelihood in other Arab countries, but many more are still in the camps and temporary dwellings that breed frustration and despair.

Other Arab lands do not wish to accept their military cadres for the same reasons the Lebanese and the Jordanians found them indigestible.

Other Arab countries are reluctant, too, to accept in principle the resettlement of an energetic, educated, and competitive outside people in their midst. The other Arab countries want a solution to the problem that will give the Palestinians an acceptable status of their own. Until it can be shown to them that a plan for peace embraces this aspect, their inhibitions against participation will remain.

The arguments can be endless about whether this is a just position, about whether the Palestinians fled or were driven from their lands, about whether the PLO represents the Palestinians. The repetition of these arguments will only prolong the current agony. There are no fully acceptable answers to the thickets of past history. Seeking them will not bring peace.

The fact is that, if the US or any other nation is to play a constructive role in the post-Beirut period, this question cannot be avoided. Lebanon should have made this clear to the Congress, the American public, the Arabs, and the Israelis.

Israel, of course, faces the hardest choice. Its present leaders will be sorely tempted to believe that the enlargement of their enclave in Lebanon and the destruction of the PLO military capacity will give them the security they want. It may give them the security, but it is doubtful it will give them freedom from terrorism or the establishment of open peaceful contacts with other Arab countries.

The Palestinian movement has hard choices, too. The Palestinian leadership can continue policies that give their dispersed people no clear future, clinging to the ambiguities of political maneuver and to unrealistic hopes of a return to old homes.

The alternative is for representatives acceptable to the bulk of the Palestinian people to seek an honorable and respected and realistic status in the region.

Must there be a Palestinian state? Perhaps. It would be a serious mistake, however, for those starting out on another effort to find their way through the morass to announce this as an objective.

There may be other solutions. It would be equally ineffective to return to Camp David autonomy talks now stigmatized by their narrow focus and wide rejection.

Today only Israel and the United States speak of Camp David. Camp David was a major step. There is much in the experience on which to build, but the name has run out of time.

The important thing, at this critical juncture, is for all of those who now decide that an effort must be made to bring stability and peace to the area to recognize that the issue of all the Palestinians, studiously avoided in two major peace efforts, cannot be neglected in a third.

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