US-PLO Talks Yield Little

Palestinians' peace hopes have faded; resistance to Israel hardens

WHAT has been accomplished in the past 12 months since American and Palestine Liberation Organization officials began talking in Tunis? Announcement of the dialogue by then Secretary of State George Shultz in December 1988 generated considerable optimism. Even Arab skeptics in the Middle East saw the US-PLO contact as a breakthrough.

Certainly the US has positioned itself as a broker between Israel and the PLO. Yet what real advance has the decision to talk produced?

Positive moves toward justice for the Palestinians have come from elsewhere than the US government. Sixty-seven percent of Americans, polls show, support some kind of a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel.

It is evident, too, that Americans are modifying their view of Israel. Two years ago few Americans would voice questions about Israeli policies and US support for them; today many do so.

Given tumultuous changes in the world during past months, the expectation increases that the US may yet work for real justice for Palestinians under occupation. The end of Russia's virtual occupation of East European states finds millions there, urged on by the US morally and financially, actually formulating new systems of self-government.

Recently, Africa's last colonial state gained independence with the creation of Namibia. SWAPO, the main Namibian liberation organization, played a central role in this transformation. And in South Africa, the freeing of several African National Congress leaders and an easing of apartheid rules promise greater justice.

Internationally, support for the PLO is expanding. The PLO is in the process of establishing diplomatic relations with the 104 nations who recognize the declared state of Palestine. The UN General Assembly, meeting in Geneva last year, showed its determination to acknowledge Yasser Arafat's central role.

Although the UN recently delayed the vote to upgrade the PLO status to that of nonmember state, the designation of Palestine is now in legitimate use in the world body.

A just peace seemed imminent for the Palestinians last December as the US-PLO talks began in Tunis. At this point, however, it appears Washington is intent, instead, on blocking progress towards a just settlement between Israel and Palestine. It recently threatened to withdraw its financial support for the UN if Palestinian status was upgraded. Under similar threat last spring, the World Health Organization retreated from a plan to work with the PLO.

What does the State Department appear to have accomplished towards PLO-Israeli peace. In May, Secretary of State James Baker III asserted that Israel must give up its vision of a ``greater'' Israel. Ninety-five US senators promptly drafted a letter rejecting that position. In October a US-brokered 10-point offer by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was rebuffed by Israel. A new five-point plan for elections in the Occupied Territories recently proposed by Secretary Baker received only qualified agreement from Israel.

Indications are the US is talking more with Egypt about the plan than with the PLO - not a favorable sign.

The US Treasury continues to issue to Israel an annual check for $3.5 billion, much of which goes to support the Israeli military. Meanwhile, US Jewish peace groups who favored the two-state formula seem to have been silenced.

Little has been won except by Israeli hard-liners. But one has to ask what they've really achieved. In the occupied areas, the killings go on. Palestinians living there continue to suffer injustices. In the second year of the intifadah - following the US announcement of a dialogue with the PLO - 365 more Palestinians have been killed.

The number of wounded doubled over the past year, to tens of thousands. The number of people detained in prison multiplied. And the demolition and sealing of homes drastically increased.

But Palestinians are no less determined to resist. New military tactics designed to hurt them, or remove them are met with stridency each day.

The attitude of Palestinians has clearly altered. Gone are the jubilation and expectations generated by Arafat's Algiers announcement of Palestinian statehood and acceptance of UN resolutions 242 and 338. Oum Sameeha Khalil, a leading West Bank dissident, says she and others expected the Israelis to celebrate that announcement with them: ``When they did not, I knew our victory would not come soon.''

In West Bank and Gaza towns in October I found Palestinians digging in for a long siege. Many young men leave prison traumatized and emaciated, but bolstered by a deeper religious faith. Former detainees, it is said, visit their mosque more regularly after prison experience.

The young step forward to fill the ranks after friends and relatives are killed or imprisoned. ``We will never give up,'' says a 17-year-old Ramallah schoolgirl whom a soldier threatened to shoot when she would not erase writing from a wall. ``Shoot me!'' she answered.

Mothers celebrate imprisoned sons, even after their home is destroyed. Palestinians declare they can resist until they succeed in ending the Israeli occupation, adding they owe this to their martyrs.

Most Palestinians and many other Arab peoples in the region are more convinced than ever that Israel does not want peace. This view is voiced in the West Bank, in Jordan, in Kuwait.

If US is committed to peace in the Middle East, the question for the coming year becomes: Can the US open a more constructive dialogue with Israel?

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