THE United States should give the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) certain assurances so that the peace process between the PLO and Israel can begin, a key Egyptian official said in an interview here over the weekend. ``The Palestinians are afraid that what is involved here is not the beginning of a final settlement, but the holding of elections for the purpose of getting new representatives that would eventually replace the PLO,'' says Osama Baz, a senior presidential advisor and chief architect of Egypt's foreign policy. He was speaking in his first on-the-record interview since an Israeli proposal for Palestinian elections was tabled last May.
He was referring to the Israeli proposal and Secretary of State James Baker III's five-point program for launching Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo to prepare for elections. The Baker points make no mention of the PLO and give Israel a de facto veto over the composition of the Palestinian delegation.
Now that both Israel and the PLO have said they accept the points, albeit with major and conflicting conditions, it will be up to the US to decide whether to issue invitations to the foreign ministers of Egypt and Israel. These would be to attend a preparatory meeting in Washington where lists of delegates to eventual Israeli Palestinian talks would be exchanged.
The US can help bring the Palestinians into the process, said the official, by articulating a ``clear American position'' on the participation of the PLO ``as a signal to the Israelis'' who want to exclude the PLO from a role in selecting the Palestinian delegates.
The PLO sent a formal response last Friday to Baker's points, in which it insisted on publicly naming the Palestinian delegation as well as on an open agenda. It also said any talks with Israel must be a prelude to an international conference.
Another senior Egyptian official interviewed yesterday said he regarded the PLO response as ``positive.'' A copy was delivered by the PLO to Egypt on Friday night at the same time as it was given to US embassy officials in Tunis. The fact that the PLO did not show the Egyptians the final draft of the response ahead of time may reflect resentment of the Egyptians for asking the PLO to accept a subordinate role.
Baz expressed sympathy with the PLO's concern.
By making such a major issue of the PLO's role, Baz says, Israel eliminated the possibility for ``constructive ambiguity'' needed to enable both sides to say they have entered into negotiations on their own terms.
``The Israelis gave the Palestinians no choice but to ask for a clear understanding of who is negotiating,'' says Baz. ``They feel under certain inner pressure to counteract the Israeli moves.''
``Because Israelis have attempted to negate the existence of the PLO, the PLO has felt a necessity to assert its own presence,'' Baz added.
In his first public comments, which come at a crucial juncture in the peace process, Baz admitted he was gloomy about the prospects for initiating the first Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. He said that if the situation remained stalemated, ``new factors'' - including religious extremism - would be created that ``will aggravate the situation every day.''
He questioned whether Israeli leaders were really serious about implementing their own election plan.
``So far, the Israelis seem determined to block the process,'' said the Egyptian official. He alleged that they were doing this ``by escalating their demands, by intimidation, by insisting on picking the representatives of their opponents, and by trying to convince everybody that the domestic situation in Israel is very complex.''
Doubts about Israel's motives were intensified by a recent letter, signed by Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, in which Israel appealed to foreign governments, including the Soviet Union, to back its position on excluding the PLO.
``If you're on the threshold of a certain process, then why do you find it necessary to circulate these letters .... They are trying to intimidate the Palestinians, block the process, make it difficult for the Palestinians to say yes,'' Baz says.
At the root of the PLO's quandary, he says, is the feeling that the purpose of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's plan is to phase out the PLO while maintaining the status quo in the occupied territories, where Palestinians have been waging a two-year rebellion against Israeli rule.
``It's hard to convince any organization to enter a process the first goal of which is to phase it out,'' says Baz, whose government has been trying to bring the PLO into the process even as the US tries to nudge Israel toward the bargaining table.
Baz praises the US which he says has ``definitely played a positive role'' in getting a peace process started. To keep it alive, Baz says, Washington should concede the PLO's right to select the Palestinian delegation and to broaden the agenda.
``Nobody is expecting the US to deliver Israel, to twist the hand of the Israeli government,'' Baz says. ``We know this is not in the cards. But what is needed is a certain American position that would serve as a signal to the Israelis.''
A Dec. 5 story on the Mideast peace process was intended to say that efforts were being made to get the process going between Israel and the Palestinians, not the Palestine Liberation Organization, as stated.