The PLO's strategy: Will it work?

THE basic strategy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in its recent actions, including the opening of the dialogue with the US government, appears to be to achieve recognition by Israel through pressure on the United States. The assumption seems to be that, once the US is convinced of the legitimacy of the PLO and its cause, Washington will induce Israel to deal with Yasser Arafat. This premise is open to serious doubt. Nevertheless, the greater prominence and legitimacy given the organization by official contacts with the US could lead to a change of attitudes in Israel.

The Palestinians believe firmly that the US, being the primary patron of Israel, can influence Israel's actions if it chooses to do so. This has led in the past to acts of terrorism against American citizens, both out of vindictiveness and a belief that such pressure will advance the Palestinian cause. The belief has led, also, to a public relations and diplomatic effort to gain the attention and sympathy of the American public.

The recent decision of the US to talk officially with the PLO and to announce it in the context of advancing the peace process will, for many Palestinians, initially confirm their assumptions. The success of the PLO strategy, however, rests on three premises, each one of which is questionable:

That the US shares with the Palestinians the objective of inducing the Israelis to negotiate with the PLO. This assumes that the commitment of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975 not to recognize or negotiate with the PLO until the organization met certain conditions was designed to bring the PLO into the peace process.

That the Israelis will accept as valid the PLO positions and assurances presented in the official dialogue with Washington and conveyed to them through US diplomatic channels.

That, once the US is satisfied with the sincerity of the PLO's attitude toward Israel and the peace process, the US will put pressure on Israel, including threats to cut aid.

The assumptions of the Palestinians in each of these cases may be wrong.

The 1975 commitment of the US regarding recognition and negotiation with the PLO grew out of negotiations on the withdrawal of the Israelis from Sinai and efforts to reconvene a Geneva international conference on the Arab-Israeli dispute. It was a means of reassuring Israel that the US would not deal separately with the PLO. It is not clear whether Washington ever intended or expected that the PLO would meet the conditions. Until recently, at least, US policy toward the PLO has been marked more by quarantine than by efforts to change the Palestinian approach.

Given the new government in Israel, still headed by Yitzhak Shamir, the possibility that the government will be persuaded to think differently about the PLO as the result of the US dialogue seems remote. Israelis on the right, certainly, want no part of Mr. Arafat or his organization. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, they believe they will ultimately be able to negotiate with King Hussein, together with Palestinians not associated with the PLO.

For decades, Palestinians and Arab governments have harbored the hope that, under some circumstances, the US will be prepared to threaten Israel with a suspension of aid to force the Israelis into a peace process. Not only is it unlikely that a US president or the US Congress would take such a step, but it is also unlikely that Israel would submit to dictates under such open pressure. The decision by the US to talk formally with the PLO removes an obstacle to US diplomacy toward the region. Official talks and the removal of inhibitions on chance contacts can lead to a better US understanding of the Palestinian position and of the trends within the organization. Such contacts can also provide opportunities to discuss matters of direct interest to the US such as terrorism against Americans and to create a better comprehension of the possibilities and limitations of a US role in the peace process. The talks are less likely, in themselves, to lead to a change in the Israeli attitudes or to a US determination to pressure Israel.

The pressure that will ultimately bring the Israelis and the PLO together will not be through a manipulation of US programs and relationships, but through a growing recognition in Israel and among the Jewish community in the US that only the PLO can speak authoritatively for the Palestinians, including both those in the Arab countries and those in the occupied territories. If that happens, the legitimacy afforded to the movement by the recent US action may have played a part. The PLO in the last analysis, however, must convince Israel - not the US - that peace can come only when it is recognized as the sole valid Arab participant in the peace process.

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