WILL the Bush administration fritter away the chance to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was opened up by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) change in policy late last year? The PLO has explicitly undertaken to recognize Israel and to accept a two-state settlement based on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza, self-determination for the Palestinians, and suitable safeguards.
Secretary of State James Baker addressed this issue in a speech last May. Calling on both sides to abandon illusions, he reaffirmed United States support for a comprehensive settlement based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, involving ``territory for peace, security, and recognition for Israel and all of the states of the region, and Palestinian political rights.'' But while ostensibly evenhanded, the speech in fact was quite one-sided. Mr. Baker ruled out a Palestinian state and virtually pledged not to exert pressure on Israel.
Worst of all, he endorsed Yitzak Shamir's proposal for elections, adopted by the Israeli cabinet in May, as something ``which deserves a constructive Palestinian and broader Arab response.'' Since then, the US has been pressuring the PLO to treat the Shamir proposal as a genuine step toward a just settlement.
It is nothing of the kind. At each stage - elections, interim Palestinian self-rule, and negotiations to define a final status - the proposal is a sham. That is manifest from its terms, from Mr. Shamir's description, and especially from the commitments Ariel Sharon forced him to make to the Likud conference in July.
The Shamir premises are that there can be no change in the status of ``Judea, Samaria, or Gaza,'' no Palestinian state, and no negotiations with the PLO.
No Palestinians in East Jerusalem, where most leaders reside, could take part in the elections, to be held only after the intifadah (uprising) had ended. Shamir has said that if ``the elected Palestinian leaders are accepting instructions from the PLO we will stop the negotiations and put the leaders in prison.''
As for self-rule, Israel would retain control over defense, security, and all matters concerning Israeli citizens in the occupied territories, and will continue making Jewish settlements. These reservations make self-rule a hollow pretense.
As for the final status, ``not an inch'' of the territories will be given up. The proposal calls only for negotiations with Jordan, with the Palestinians allowed to join if they accept the agenda - i.e., peace with Jordan and some solution for ``the Arabs of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza'' and the ``refugee'' problem.
The real purpose of this smoke-screen scheme is to end the intifadah, to gain time for the permanent takeover of the occupied territories, and to discredit Yasser Arafat and the PLO moderates.
Israel, the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), and other pro-Israeli lobbies have mounted a major campaign to sell this proposal as proof of Israel's efforts for peace, and to abort the US-PLO dialogue.
By embracing so transparent a fraud and pressuring the PLO, Baker is jeopardizing the opening offered by the PLO and reinforcing Israeli intransigence.
The PLO position offers a reasonable basis for a fair settlement. US rejection of a Palestinian state is wholly unjustified. Under the safeguards it is willing to accept, it cannot possibly threaten Israel.
Baker should be pressing Israel to negotiate on the PLO proposal. The US should face up to the fact that no progress will be made toward real peace unless the US is prepared to put pressure on Israel as it has on the PLO.
At present, the US is doing just the reverse. By its subsidy of over $3 billion a year, and its repeated UN vetoes, the US is a de facto accomplice to Israel's settlement program, its rejection of UN 242, and its repression of the Palestinians.
Israeli supporters always argue that pressure would be counterproductive. Instead, Israel must be reassured. Yet in the Reagan years, when US support for Israel was almost total, Israel became intransigent in rejecting withdrawal from the occupied territories. In 1957, David Ben-Gurion pulled out of Sinai after the Suez invasion only when Dwight Eisenhower threatened sanctions.
The Israelis should be warned that the effort to absorb the Palestinian lands into ``Greater Israel'' will profoundly affect not only the character of Israel itself, but also its relations with the US. The inevitable threat to long-term US strategic interests in the Middle East will eventually jeopardize US economic, military, and diplomatic support for Israel.
Indeed, the public already seems to be ahead of the administration and Congress. In an August poll, in response to the question of whether ``Israel is a reliable ally of the US,'' 53 percent said it is not, and only 29 percent said it is. Gradually, Israel's repression of the Palestinians and the arrogance of the pro-Israeli lobby are generating disgust and resentment. Many Jews in Israel and the US are deeply troubled by Israel's current course. They are striving to foster a settlement recognizing the rights of both Israel and the Palestinians, and to counter the influence of AIPAC. They deserve support.