A Dialogue Held Hostage to Terrorism

THE abortive speedboat attack on May 30 by Palestinian elements against Israeli beaches has once again created pressures to end the dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974 set the stage for today's pressures when he made US negotiations with the PLO contingent not only on the acceptance of Israel's right to exist, but also on the renunciation of terrorism. These terms were conditionally accepted by Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1988 and, on that basis, then-Secretary of State George Shultz agreed to the current dialogue. Given the political realities in both Israel and the US, those conditions were understandable, but the linkage to terrorism has made the continuation of the talks vulnerable to actions by extremists on both sides.

Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, bitterly oppose dialogue with the PLO and will seize any pretext to undermine it. They hope to gain universal acceptance of their position that the PLO is little more than a ``band of terrorists'' and thus reduce both its international standing and its importance as the representative of Palestinians in the occupied territory.

The link to the renunciation of terrorism makes the talks vulnerable, as well, to extreme elements within the PLO who, also, oppose any contact with the US. They are aware that their actions, too, will awaken demands, both in Israel and in the United States, to end the dialogue.

The circumstances of the US-PLO discussions are further complicated by the gray area created by Arafat's refusal to renounce the Palestinians' ``armed struggle'' against Israeli military targets. He renounced ``terrorist acts,'' by which he appeared to refer to acts against innocent civilians outside Israel and the occupied territories. So far he has kept that pledge. To Israelis and Americans, however, any armed action against Israel by PLO elements constitutes ``terrorism'' and brings into play the demands for cessation of the dialogue.

The US reaction to the attempted attack of May 30 was to demand that Chairman Arafat denounce the raid and expel from the PLO those elements responsible. In the normal context of Palestinian politics these were impossible demands. They were made even more so by recent events, including the killing of seven Palestinians by an apparently deranged Israeli; the Israeli refusal to discourage the settlement of Soviet Jewish immigrants in the occupied territories; the new popularity in the Arab world of Iraq's militancy; and the lack of results to date from the US-PLO dialogue.

Senseless acts against American citizens in the past have strengthened the case of those who would equate the PLO with terrorism. But the current issue is not only terrorism. It is the issue of whether those recognized by the majority of Palestinians as their representatives will have a place at the peace table. Terminating the dialogue will not lessen the threat of terrorism.

The willingness of responsible Arabs to help control acts of violence is unlikely to be enhanced by attitudes in Washington and Israel that block efforts to speak to the only leadership broadly recognized by the Palestinian people. The meager results of the meetings between American and PLO diplomats in Tunis provide little basis on which the Palestinian leadership can take the political risks entailed in denouncing acts of terrorism. The result can only be more violence and such futile acts as the May 30 attempted raid.

A situation of irony has now been reached in which discussions necessary to further the process of peace between Israelis and Palestinians are set back by the very acts of violence that make the process necessary. Most experts in the area believe that peace can only be achieved with active participation by the PLO and its chairman. There is little evidence that support for the PLO within the occupied territories is eroding. The United States remains a major factor in peace efforts; if it is to play a significant role, dialogue with the PLO is essential.

President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker have made solid efforts to revive the peace process in the Middle East, including discussions with the PLO.

Past commitments, however, have made that necessary dialogue with the PLO hostage to acts of extreme elements on both sides. As a result, both the dialogue and the broader process of peace have been derailed.

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