The Palestine Liberation Organization has taken an important step, but it has not moved far enough for the United States to be willing to talk. That is the initial reading in Washington of the Palestine National Council (PNC) declarations from Algiers. In them, the PLO declared an independent Palestinian state. It also implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist by accepting UN Resolution 242, which refers to the right of every state in the area to live in secure and recognized boundaries.
Accepting 242 ``is positive but falls well short of deserving a major reaction on our part,'' sums up a key administration Middle East policy adviser. He and others are, however, reserving final judgment until they can study the full texts from Algiers.
At first blush, Washington experts seem to agree that the PLO has not clearly met the three US conditions for dialogue - accepting 242, explicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist, and renouncing terrorism. But the question still before the administration is how to encourage the positive evolution that seems evident in the PLO's declarations.
``It's a definite change, but a two-fisted one,'' says an administration specialist on the Arab-Israeli dispute. ``One claw puts forward and the other pulls back. This is the first time the PLO has even accepted anything relating to UN Resolution 242. ... That is a step forward. But this is apparently linked to acceptance of an independent Palestinian state and the Palestinians' right to self-determination. That is prejudging negotiations.''
The bottom line, he says, is that the PLO's intentions are still unclear.
``The PLO is still trying to see how much it can get for how little. I would, too, if I were them, but it doesn't mean we should let up on our conditions for a dialogue.'' A good deal will depend on how the PLO now acts on and interprets what it has declared, another specialist adds.
Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees. ``The US is crucial in determining what is real and what is not. We set the standard. It's not good policy to erode the standards we've set as the basis of negotiations.''
Mr. Indyk, whose institute is well connected in Israel and the US administration, says the appropriate US response is to welcome the forward movement, but to make clear that for a dialogue with the US, the PLO must clearly meet US conditions. Too-rapid US acceptance of the PLO's moves, he says, would relieve current pressure on the PLO.
Right now, he says, the Soviet Union, the US, Egypt, Jordan, and, perhaps most important, the Palestinians on the West Bank, are pressing the PLO to get realistic. ``In the end it's not Washington the PLO has to persuade, it's Israel,'' he says.
Nevertheless, some are pushing for a more forthcoming US response to the PLO moves, among them the US's moderate Arabs friends. And Egypt has been particularly engaged in pressing the PLO to moderate its stance.
``This is very important,'' says a senior Arab diplomat in Washington. ``We need a positive US response'' or the PLO trend toward moderation could be reversed.
William Quandt, a senior fellow at Washington's respected Brookings Institution and former White House Middle East adviser, says the changes in the PLO position are significant. The US should note what is positive in the declarations, he says, and make clear its hope that these changes will be sustained as a basis for peace negotiations.
Indeed, a number of US specialists questioned noted their frustration that as the Palestinians are finally making ``the right noises,'' as one put it, the political makeup in Israel makes any positive responses unlikely.
Behind the US reactions are divergent views on how ripe the Arab-Israeli conflict is for settlement and how active the new administration should be in peace-process diplomacy.
One view is that the current situation is not conducive to breakthroughs. Thus, the US should focus on creating the conditions on the ground in the territories, in Israel, and in the PLO in which formal negotiations might be able to prosper. The other view is that, even if the situation on the ground looks tough, the US should try right away to create conditions for progress both in negotiations and on the ground.