The Time is Ripe, Mr. Arafat

THE conflicting pressures on Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat are mounting. On the one hand, rejectionists backed by Libya and Syria are actively working to discredit and frustrate Arafat's attempts to participate in an American-supported political initiative aimed at getting Palestinian-Israeli talks started. They seek to remove Arafat politically if not physically. Fierce fighting was reported over the weekend of June 15-17 among rival Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon. Fatah forces loyal to Arafat claim to have captured 55 members of the dissident Abu Nidal terrorist band, which had assassinated a local leader of Arafat's Fatah. It remains to be seen whether this skirmish at the Rashidiye camp near Tyre will finally lead to full-scale confrontation between the pragmatists and the extremists within the Palestinian movement or whether Arafat will continue to temporize and vacillate in the hope of maintaining a modicum of consensus.

On the other hand, Arafat is under pressure from President George Bush, who on June 20 announced the United States was suspending its US dialogue with the PLO until the organization took ``the necessary steps'' to ``resolve problems relating'' to terrorism by PLO-affiliated groups. Secretary of State James Baker had earlier stated, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 12, that the US was also seeking the help of Egypt, Britain, France and other countries to convince the PLO leader to explicitly denounce the foiled attack against Israeli civilians along Israel's seashore on May 30 and to take decisive disciplinary action against Mohammed (Abul) Abbas. Abbas masterminded not only this terrorist raid but also the seizure in 1985 of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, during which Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair bound American tourist was murdered.

At this crucial moment, I wish to remind Mr. Arafat of his own earlier pledge to act against the extremists within his organization. In November 1976 Arafat secretly sent Issam Sartawi, one of his senior advisers, to meet informally in New York and Washington with American Jews closely identified with Israel. His mission was to ask them to convey to Israel the message that the PLO was undergoing a fundamental change: In contrast to its past calls for the dissolution of the Jewish state, the PLO was now prepared to advocate a small Palestinian state living at peace with a sovereign State of Israel.

Jewish participants in the New York meeting were naturally skeptical. When I asked Dr. Sartawi how Israel could be sure his offer bore the authority of the organization itself, he responded that Arafat had personally authorized him to assert that ``When the time is ripe,'' PLO moderates would eliminate extremist oposition ``just as Ben-Gurion did.'' He also boasted that ``it took us in Fatah only six hours to liquidate the Saiga [a Syrian-backed PLO group] when it came to a showdown in Lebanon.''

Unfortunately, Dr. Sartawi did not live to see his vision realized. In April 1983 he was gunned down in Portugal by a terrorist from the Abu Nidal faction, which had broken away from Arafat's PLO in 1974 and was backed by Syria at the time. But unlike the renegade Abu Nidal faction, which is now based in Libya, Abul Abbas' Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) remains formally within the PLO umbrella.

AFTER the Achille Lauro hijacking, Arafat supporters assured American critics that it was only a matter of time before new elections were held in the PLF and Abul Abbas was removed. Yet when the Palestine National Council (PNC) took its ``historical decision'' in Algiers in November 1988, in effect making Sartawi's trial balloon of a two-state solution official PLO policy, nothing was done to replace Abul Abbas. He continues to be a member of the PLO executive committee. (Arafat's deputy, Abu Iyyad finally announced on June 18 that the PLO's security branch had begun an internal investigation to determine whether the intended target of the PLF's latest attack was military or civilian. The results of the inquiry would eventually be passed on to the PNC, he said.)

Dr. Sartawi's optimism was misplaced, for Arafat has thus far failed to act decisively as had Israel's first prime minister. Sartawi's reference to the incident in which David Ben-Gurion ordered his Haganah forces to fire upon the Altalena - a ship bringing desperately needed munitions to the rival Irgun commando unit during Israel's 1948 war for independence - is thus tragically ironic.

The outcome of that painful but isolated episode in Israeli history has no parallel among Arab leaders: The danger of further fratricide ended when the Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, agreed to disband his forces and limit himself to political activity. Unlike the PLO with its rival and sometimes warring factions, today in Israel there is only the Israel Defense Forces, who carry out the orders of the democratically elected government.

Moreover, when Begin became Prime Minister, he faithfully carried out the terms of the peace treaty with Egypt. He ordered the IDF to evacuate all Israelis from the Sinai, including the town of Yamit, to which he had earlier promised to retire. While there may be stormy debates and close votes in the Knesset, once Israel commits itself to an agreement, there is no question that the Israel Goverment - whether headed by Ben-Gurion, Begin, or Yitzhak Shamir - has the authority and power to carry out its word.

The time is ripe - indeed it is long overdue - Mr. Arafat, for you to demonstrate to the Israelis and to the world that you are willing and able to do likewise.

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