Despite obstacles, some Jews contact PLO to seek peace
''Where is the Israeli Nixon?'' This question was raised passionately by opposition Labor Party parliamentarian Shevach Weiss in a recent Israeli newspaper article. It spoke of the daunting obstacles to dialogue between Israelis and officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
If former American President Richard Nixon could meet with the United States's avowed opponents, the Chinese Communists, he demanded in the pro-Labor Party daily Davar, why were Israeli officials so hostile to any dialogue with those ''willing to talk'' within the ranks of Israel's ''real enemy,'' the PLO?
Professor Weiss's question touches an issue which sets off sparks in Israel: the possibility of expanded contacts between Israelis and PLO officials. Until now such contacts have been largely limited to meetings, mostly secret, between a handful of Europe-based PLO doves and members of the ultra-dovish Israeli Council for Israel-Palestine Peace with a handful of other Israeli intellectuals.
But moderate PLO officials at the recent Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Algiers say the PLO or at least the moderate wing headed by the chairman wants to expand such contacts and draw Israelis closer to the establishment. They insist the PNC's ambiguously worded resolution on ''contacts with Jewish forces'' gives them the leeway to do so. This raises questions of how Israelis interpret these resolutions, and what response is likely in a society where most people fear and despise the PLO which they perceive as dedicated to their destruction.
One dove committed to Israeli-PLO contacts is Israeli journalist Uri Avneri, who along with reserve Gen. Matti Peled and economist Yacov Arnon - all of the peace council - held a much-publicized meeting with Mr. Arafat in January. Because the meeting was made public - breaking with past PLO history of denying secret rendezvous after the fact - it was seen as setting a precedent for more widespread contacts.
But Mr. Avneri is worried about the language of the PLO resolution. It calls on the PLO Executive Committee to study the question of contacts but refers to ''the framework'' of a previous 1977 PNC resolution limiting contacts to those opposed to Zionism. Mr. Avneri - and other Israeli doves - are also disturbed by the resignation - not accepted - from the PNC of Paris-based Palestinian Dr. Issam Saratawi, who arranged most PLO-Israeli contacts until now.
''At the meeting with Arafat we discussed holding a future meeting of 30 thinkers on each side which was supposed to take place in May. Whether this happens will be a test of PLO intentions,'' says Mr. Avneri.
PLO moderates, such as key Arafat lieutenent Abu Mazin (Mahmoud Abbas), insist that the policy of contacts will go forward regardless of Mr. Sartawi's future role. He specifies the PLO's new definition of Jewish talking-partners in or outside Israel is anyone who supports Palestinian self-determination and a Palestinian state, irrespective of ideology.
But finding Israeli establishment figures who will accept dialogue on this basis may not be easy. The opposition has been as opposed to contacts with the PLO as has the ruling Likud coalition.
The three participants in the January meeting with Mr. Arafat were labelled ''enemies of the state and of democracy'' who had reached ''the depths of depravity'' by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. They were threatened with prosecution.
Some Israeli intellectuals believe it would make sense for expanded dialogue to be conducted via Palestinians on the West Bank, presumably with a PLO green light. West Bank-Israeli political contacts exist between academics and with Israeli peace groups, including Peace Now, but they remain limited.
Mr. Avneri says Mr. Arafat told his group the PLO would ''issue a public call to West Bank leaders by name to cooperate with Israeli peace forces.''
Says lawyer Tsaly Reshef, one of the key organizers for the Peace Now movement, ''Uri Avneri paid and got nothing in return. I would consider meeting with the PLO if there were a joint document phrased beforehand about mutual Israel-PLO recognition.''
Emphasizing he was speaking for himself, but that he thought he echoed movement feeling, Mr. Reshef continued, ''Then I could come back to Israel and say we got something, that there is someone to talk to on the other side. But otherwise it wouldn't help the peace process of appealing to Israeli public opinion.''
Other Israeli doves slightly closer to the mainstream than the peace council have expressed cautious interest in a dialogue if there was a clear political result.
PLO moderates do not appear ready for such a move. They still face opposition to contacts from hard-liners.
Given such daunting obstacles, the blossoming of expanded PLO-Israeli dialogue may be slow in coming.
If there is motion, it will probably be because both sides feel the lack of alternatives. Notes Shevach Weiss, despite his disappointment about the Algiers resolutions, ''If we will not talk with our enemies in conferences, even in secret meetings, the alternative is to talk every seven years with wars.''