In a crucial speech before the United Nations yesterday, Yasser Arafat sought to sweep away lingering doubts about Palestinian intentions toward Israel. He only partly succeeded.
``He came a long way today on the terrorism question,'' a West European diplomat said, ``but it's still deeds, not words, that get the job done.''
Mr. Arafat put forward a three-point ``peace plan,'' which includes the ``right to exist in peace and security for all'' nations in the Mideast. The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization also repeated, in the strongest terms to date, the PLO's renunciation of terrorism.
``I ask the leaders of Israel to come here, under the sponsorship of the United Nations, so that, together, we can forge that peace,'' he said.
Israeli officials in Geneva, who boycotted the speech, called it an ``exercise of ambiguity.''
The United States appeared to concur, saying Arafat did not meet its terms for a US dialogue. ``The speech contained some interesting and some positive developments, but it continued to be ambiguous on the key issues which must be clearly addressed...,'' State Department spokesman Charles Redman said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told a press conference: ``We know what hides behind his [Arafat's] words. We know that as they are spoken, acts of terror continue.'' He cited an incident yesterday in which a Palestinian shepherd in the Israeli-occupied West Bank took away the gun of a Jewish settler and killed two Israelis before being shot by soldiers.
Diplomats also noted that Arafat made only one brief reference to the ``right'' of countries in the area to exist, and never cited Israel by name in this regard.
Indeed, the speech is unlikely to break the diplomatic logjam between the PLO and Israel.
Clovis Maksoud, the Arab League representative to the UN, said after the speech that he thought Washington would be forced to reconsider its policy of refusing to speak to the PLO.
``There are no more hang-ups as far as the PLO is concerned,'' Dr. Maksoud said. But, he added, it's unlikely that any movement would come until after the administration of President-elect George Bush takes office in January. Mr. Bush, however, was yesterday reported as saying ``We've got to get a much clearer statement of everything.''
In the meantime, the PLO is looking beyond the US and Israel to try to win deeper support among West Europeans.
In particular, the PLO leader wants European backing for resolutions being considered during this week's hastily organized session of the General Assembly. Diplomatic sources confirm that, although negotiations on exact wording continues, there are three resolutions to be presented this week:
A call for an international peace conference on the Mideast.
UN supervision of Israeli-occupied territories during a period of transition to Palestinian self-rule.
Some form of recognition of the PLO's proclamation last month of a state.
European backing for the resolutions would give Arafat a huge diplomatic boost.
The most sticky resolution, analysts say, is the one involving recognition of the state proclaimed by the Palestine National Council, the PLO's legislative arm, at a meeting in Algiers last month. One option being considered is the creation of a Palestine observer mission.
West European officials responded with cautious optimism to yesterday's speech, but emphasized that they would not vote for resolutions that left major points unclear - such as whether the PLO recognizes Israel. ``We're going to watch the language very carefully,'' says one diplomat, referring to the resolutions.
The meeting, which continues today and tomorrow, had to be moved to the UN's Geneva headquarters after US Secretary of State George Shultz refused to grant the PLO leader a visa to address the UN in New York.
The US action created a publicity bonanza for the Palestinians, who have cast themselves as the underdogs.
But the feisty Palestinian leader now faces problems from within his own organization. Yesterday's speech is expected to spark criticism among radical Arabs, including some members of the PLO. Hard-liners have objected even to the relatively ambiguous statements on Israel made in Algiers last month.
An Iranian official has said that Arafat's policy toward Israel is ``a crime against the whole Muslim world.''
And even the setting for this week's meetings emphasizes the depth of problems ahead. The usually sleepy UN complex has become a virtual armed camp - with coils of barbed wire atop perimeter fences. Signs posted near the entrance warn - in five languages - that Army guards have orders to shoot anyone who refuses to stop on command.