Reported PLO offer refuels Israeli peace debate

A reported peace message from Yasser Arafat to Israeli leaders has rekindled debate on whether the government should talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization or even respond to its overtures. Though official Israeli responses have been uniformly dismissive, there are indications that Israel's rejection of the PLO may not necessarily endure.

The Arafat message was reported by Charlie Biton, a Communist member of the Israeli parliament, who met the PLO leader last week in Geneva. It laid down three guidelines for direct talks between the PLO and Israel in an international Mideast peace conference: mutual recognition and cessation of hostilities and a halt to new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during talks. (See accompanying report).

Even before Mr. Biton returned to Israel, a PLO spokesman in Tunis denied the message, fueling doubt among Israeli officials. Biton insisted on his return that he was carrying an oral message, and said he wanted to convey it personally to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Though the two leaders did not see Biton, they unexpectedly sent their top aides to meet him.

Both Mr. Shamir and Mr. Peres made it clear that they saw nothing new in the message and considered it to be a propaganda ploy, not a genuine peace offer.

Shamir reiterated his views that the PLO was dedicated to the destruction of Israel and could never be a partner for negotiations. ``They are looking for ways to boost their prestige and make some gains, but they must admit their mistake and disappear from the political map,'' he bluntly told a television interviewer. Peres, in a somewhat softer response, said Arafat was unreliable.

The responses reflected the dominant view among top government analysts that the Arafat message repeated elements heard in previous statements by PLO officials and simply reiterated the organization's readiness to participate in an international Mideast peace conference.

At the same time, the decision by Shamir and Peres to send aides to meet Biton showed that despite the strong official rejection of the PLO, they could not ignore even reports of a message from Arafat. Hearing Biton out amounted to legitimization of his meeting with the PLO leader, despite Israeli legislation outlawing contact with the organization, analysts here say. The significance of receiving Biton was not lost on several right-wing parliament members who condemned the move.

``If Shamir is unable to ignore statements attributed to Arafat by Biton, even after their denial by the PLO spokesman, then there is a chance that with a more moderate Israeli government there could be real dialogue with the organization,'' wrote political analyst Dan Margalit in the daily, Haaretz. ``The conclusion to be drawn by moderate Palestinians is that when they come forward with a real compromise proposal, there will be no government in Israel which will be able to ignore them, or respond with a resounding no.''

The meetings with Biton brought other indications of movement toward an Israeli acceptance of the PLO. The secretary general of Peres's Labor Party, Uzi Baram, reiterated a formula espoused by the party's dovish wing: If the PLO openly declared unified acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and 338 (which imply recognition of Israel), and renounced terrorism, Israel would have to reassess its attitude and consider negotiating with the PLO.

Israel's largest circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, published a full-page and uncharacteristically sympathetic report on the PLO team in Geneva, which was at a UN conference.

The story ran a large picture of Arafat and a headline quoting PLO officials: ``We are sick of the 40 years war. We want peace.'' The story said private talks between Israeli journalists and PLO officials revealed an ``astounding change'' in the PLO leadership, which was concentrating on political action and calls for peace talks aimed at Israeli public opinion.

Analysts say Arafat is acting on a decision taken this year by the PLO's governing body to pursue contacts with ``democratic forces'' in Israel who support the Palestinian cause.

``Israel has ceased being an unmentionable word for PLO officials,'' Yediot Ahronot said. By the same token, the PLO appears to have moved one step closer to entering the Israeli political lexicon.

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