Report that US softened stand on PLO revives tensions in Israel

A report that the US has quietly amended conditions for talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization has revived tension between hawks and doves in Israel's ruling coalition. Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke of a softened US policy on the PLO during a closed-door session Monday of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Israeli parliament, a committee source said Tuesday.

A similar report appeared here earlier in the day in two Jerusalem newspapers, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.

US officials here declined comment on the reports about the parliament committee's session, but declared there had been no ``official change in US policy'' toward the PLO.

The committee source said Mr. Peres, in reply to a question, had said the US conveyed the change to Israel ``a few weeks ago.''

Peres suggested Israel had made no objection, said the source, who belongs to a party to the right of Peres's Labor Party.

As a political storm built here in response to the Haaretz report, however, Prime Minister Peres used the occasion of a meeting with Israeli factory workers to repeat government opposition to any PLO participation in negotiations.

A source close to Peres said the US had indeed communicated to Israel a slightly softened position on the PLO. The change, this source said, was part of a bid to boost efforts by King Hussein of Jordan to get Palestinians to join him in an initiative to revive Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

The reported change involves a 1975 US pledge to Israel that Washington will refuse substantive contact with the PLO until it endorses two key United Nations' resolutions on the Mideast and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

Now, Peres is said to have told the parliamentary group, the US has substituted for the latter condition a demand that the PLO agree to hold direct talks with Israel.

The two UN resolutions which the PLO would have to endorse even under the reportedly ammended US conditions, contain a far less explicit mention of Israel's right to exist. The two resolutions, numbers 242 and 228, call on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories in return for peace.

The Peres remarks revived tension within his 14-month-old coalition government only days after a clash between the prime minister and the chief coalition critic of Peres's Mideast negotiating approach, Industry Minister Ariel Sharon.

The main coalition partners are Peres's left-leaning Labor Party and the more hawkish Herut Party, which includes Mr. Sharon and is headed by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Among the sharpest of Mr. Sharon's attacks on Peres's policy has been a charge that it risked bringing the PLO into a negotiating process. This is something Israel has always opposed, saying the PLO was merely a ``terrorist organization'' dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

A prominent Herut figure, explaining his party's concern over Peres's remarks, said the reported softening in the US conditions for talking to the PLO risked allowing PLO participation in the negotiating process.

Peres, the Herut man said, had played down the significance of the US shift by echoing a longtime Herut contention that ``Israel doesn't need the PLO to recognize its right to exist.''

``We stand by this idea. We don't need such recognition,'' the Herut man said.

``But there is a political substance in the altered conditions that transcends this moral point. The fact is that anything done to make it easier on the PLO, easier to afford this terror organization political respectability,'' must be opposed, he said.

A source close to Foreign Minister Shamir said the Herut leader would also oppose any softening in US conditions for dealing with the PLO.

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