Despite failure of envoy's trip, US sticks to search for team to talk with Israel

The United States remains committed to finding a formula for forming a joint Jordanian-Palestinian peace negotiating team that can reach a territorial compromise with Israel. That is the assessment both of Jordanian officials and diplomatic sources here in the wake of State Department envoy Richard Murphy's tour of the region.

Mr. Murphy came to the Middle East hoping to meet with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Such a meeting was considered an important step in bringing a joint negotiating team to a face-to-face meeting with Israeli negotiators.

But a jittery Palestine Liberation Organization refused to OK non-PLO representation on such a joint delegation. The Israelis, who have accepted the principle of negotiating with the Jordanian-Palestinian team, have refused to negotiate with anyone who is a member of the PLO.

Murphy had asked the PLO to relinquish its role as the ``sole legitimate representative'' of the Palestinian people.

The PLO's refusal to comply ``didn't put us back to square one, but we are pretty much at square two,'' says one gloomy Western diplomat.

Palestinians in Amman say the PLO is deeply divided over the American offer to meet with a Jordanian-Palestinian team. PLO chief Yasser Arafat and some of his closest aides in Al-Fatah, the largest Palestinian guerrilla organization represented in the PLO, want to enter negotiations.

But OK-ing a non-PLO negotiating team would amount to an act of political suicide, sources with the PLO say.

Sunday, the PLO issued a statement from Tunis saying that it completely rejected Murphy's proposals but would still be receptive to any new US initiatives.

The US response was to offer a show of support for Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Washington said that Secretary of State George Shultz will expand his planned trip to Israel this month to include stops in Amman and Cairo. King Hussein has also been invited to visit Washington later in the month.

The idea, one knowledgeable source said, is to ``have it validated for the Palestinians once more that the King of Jordan is important, and that the US will support the King of Jordan against the radicals who are trying to do him in.''

The Jordanians and Egyptians have been pushing hard for more US involvement in the region since Hussein and Arafat signed a negotiating agreement Feb. 11.

The agreement committed the PLO to join with Jordan in seeking a negotiated settlement with Israel. It called for Israel to withdraw from all territories it occupied during the 1967 war in exchange for peace.

The negotiations would take place under the auspices of the United Nations.

The US reportedly agreed with Hussein's assessment that if there is to be an overall settlement of the Palestinian problem, it must be reached soon, before increasingly powerful hard-line factions on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict overwhelm the moderates and make a negotiated settlement impossible.

They have aimed their policy at pressuring the PLO either to accept UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which recognize Israel's right to exist, or to stand aside and let other PLO-approved Palestinians negotiate on their behalf with the Israelis.

Murphy's 16-day tour of the region's capitals was the first such trip by a US official since the Hussein-Arafat agreement was announced.

Murphy met with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Amman and heard the same message in both places -- the PLO must be included in the peace process.

That position is rejected by the Israelis, who regard the PLO as a terrorist organization.

The PLO's case was not helped, one source says, by its attempt to land a boatload of guerrillas in Israel on the eve of the Jewish state's Independence Day last week. The Israelis sank the boat far off the coast. Twenty guerrillas drowned and eight were captured.

Timing that PLO attack to occur when Murphy was in the region was an act ``of colossal stupidity of kaleidoscopic, breathtaking dimensions,'' says one observer.

But the attempt showed the dilemma the PLO finds itself in, says one member of the Palestine National Council -- the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile.

``The PLO is a dying old man,'' says the PNC member, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. ``It's shattered. It's split, there's no strength left in it.''

Al-Fatah, which claimed responsibility for the failed attack, viewed the attack as a way of reestablishing its credibility with its own, disillusioned constituency, the PNC member says.

``Now, we are unable to do even that,'' he notes with irony. ``We are unable to hit the Israelis. The organization is rotten.''

But diplomatic sources here insist that although the PLO now is weaker than ever before, King Hussein believes he cannot enter negotiations without the PLO.

``The King needs the PLO and the PLO needs the King.''

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