PLO Stands Firm on Its Role in the Peace Process

THE Palestine Liberation Organization conveyed a qualified approval Friday to United States proposals for opening an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Palestinian officials here said. The official PLO response, which insists on the organization's right to ``publicly name'' members of the Palestinian delegation to the talks, comes after two months of exhaustive exchanging of proposals and counterproposals between the PLO and Washington via Cairo and other channels.

According to senior PLO officials, the response - given Friday night to the US ambassador to Tunis and the Egyptian government - states that the PLO ``accepts to deal with proposals put forward by US Secretary of State James Baker only in accordance'' with a host of terms which reserve the right of the organization to name the Palestinian delegation.

The response also stipulates an open agenda for suggested international sponsorship of the meeting.

The PLO move defies intense US and Egyptian pressure to give Cairo the major role in appointing the delegation. The talks would focus on Israeli suggestions for elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to PLO officials, Egyptian pressures on the organization to accept an almost ``invisible and marginal'' role continued until the last minute.

However, Cairo finally gave up pushing for modifications and agreed to convey the response to the US along with an Egyptian explanatory memorandum to support the Palestinian position.

``This [response] is the minimum we can accept,'' said Salah Khalaf, the PLO's second in command, in an interview here. ``We are willing to be flexible, but we can never compromise our right of representation.''

PLO officials reject attempts to reduce their role to ``behind-the-scene advisers'' to Cairo or any Arab government. The recent direct and indirect negotiations between Washington and the PLO, the officials said, had brought to mind the Reagan administration attempt in the mid-1980s to give Jordan a primary role in representing the Palestinian people.

``The Americans seem to be always trying to lease us to one Arab government or another,'' Mr. Khalaf said.

Since the start of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) against Israeli occupation of the territories, which prompted King Hussein to relinquish responsibility for the West Bank to the PLO, Jordan has been backing the PLO's role. Meanwhile Cairo has stepped up pressure on it.

``We are not only disappointed that Cairo is playing the role of the broker instead of that of a supporter ... What is worse is that the same Egyptian officials have been trying to appease Washington at our expense,'' said a Palestinian official who did not wish to be named.

The PLO's bitterness and frustration come from what they view as US efforts to deal them out of the peace process. ``The Americans are asking us to accept to exclude ourselves,'' Khalaf said.

Last week, PLO President Yasser Arafat scored an important diplomatic success as he rallied support of Arab states.

At an urgent foreign ministerial meeting here, he gained their full backing for the PLO's role as the sole legitimate representative of Palestinians in all stages of the peace process.

But PLO officials here say that the official Arab position falls short of practical and solid action to counter US pressures.

The PLO is concerned that its stand will not be positively reciprocated by the US, at a time when internal Palestinian pressures to escalate the armed struggle against Israel are growing.

The biggest worry here seems to be over lack of US readiness to recognize the PLO leadership and pressure Israel to both deal with the PLO and withdraw from the territories.

PLO officials fear this could provoke serious division among Palestinian organizations and trigger uncontrollable extremism in the territories as well as in the diaspora.

Trapped between US and Egyptian pressures for further concessions and growing Palestinian militancy, Mr. Arafat seems to be trying hard to maintain his patience.

``But patience has limits,'' Arafat told the Monitor a few days before the final response.

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