SOMETHING new is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consider: Several months ago a group of Israeli citizens traveled to Romania to enter into dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They are being put on trial in Israel.
In recent days, another group of Israelis, risking imprisonment, has again entered into dialogue with the PLO.
Earlier this year Abba Eban criticized the American Jewish community for not being sensitive and outspoken on the moral question involved in continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Recently, over 100 prominent American Jews issued a call to both sides to forgo violence, and urged a peace based on mutual recognition and self-determination.
To this let me add the dialogue meetings which just ended between Yasser Arafat, other PLO leaders, and a delegation of American Jews. I was a member of that delegation.
What is going on? Several threads are beginning to come together, and collectively they offer new hope. First of all, it is clear that the turn toward negotiations taken by the PLO is not dead. Quite the contrary, they are now united in calling for an international conference. But despairing of the lack of visionary leadership in Israel or the United States, they are reaching out directly to the Jewish people.
Second, prominent Jews both in the US and Israel have recognized that Israeli democracy and security require that it end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, there are signs of a return to the idea of a two-state solution. Mutual recognition and self-determination are in the air.
Finally, ordinary people both in Israel and the US have begun to act for peace, fearing that the present opportunity will not last forever.
In our discussions with the PLO leadership, I was particularly struck by the centrality of the psychological dimension. There is a constant sense of moral outrage. The Palestinians have been subject to a moral double standard. There has been a continued blindness to the simple fact that the Palestinians suffered a basic injustice in being expelled from their land. And there has been a similar blindness in not recognizing that as a people living under 20 years of occupation they have a moral right to resist through armed struggle.
The PLO leadership has little positive expectation for either the US or the Israeli government. They feel that they have made major concessions and overtures but have been met by a brick wall. They expressed a readiness to be more forthcoming, but are looking for some responsiveness on the other side. At the same time there is a sense of desperation. Extremists within the PLO such as George Habbash argue that only armed struggle will bring the Israelis to the conference table.
In conversations with key PLO staff, it sometimes appeared as if they believed that it was possible to simultaneously pursue both a carrot and a stick approach. Yet surely this is wrong. A move toward stepped-up violence will discredit those Israelis calling for dialogue and mutual recognition. It will play into the hands of the Israeli right wing which refuses any territorial compromise.
The PLO cannot bring about a settlement on its own; it must be met halfway. And while direct citizen initiatives play a vital role in moving government policies, ultimately it is the governments which will have to act.
Is it not time for the US to change course? Since 1975 we have been handcuffed by a foolish agreement made by Henry Kissinger to the effect that we would not recognize or negotiate with the PLO until they accepted United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 and recognized Israel's right to exist. Recently, Secretary of State George Shultz has been adding further preconditions. But this makes no sense. We should draw them into negotiations, not freeze them out. Either we should drop these preconditions or we should agree to their counter demand: that the US accept the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Furthermore, the administration should act to counter the demonization of the PLO. We are creating a situation from which it will be more and more difficult to extricate ourselves. Election-year opportunism has now produced legislation which would close PLO offices in the US. The administration should oppose this legislation, and US citizens, especially the Jewish community, should be asking the PLO to send a speaker to the community center.
Jerome M. Segal is a research scholar at the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He recently represented Washington Area Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in meetings with Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders in Tunisia.