AMERICAN pressure on the Palestinians and Israel appears to have averted a crisis in the Middle East peace process triggered by an unprecedented public meeting between Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and members of the Palestinian negotiating team.
But the controversy over the meeting, held in Amman last Thursday, suggests that the issue of Palestinian representation in the peace talks remains unresolved and could still undermine the fragile process, according to Western diplomats and Arab analysts. The United States and Israel have barred the PLO from participating directly in the peace talks.
The Amman meeting indicates that the Palestinians are still seeking a direct role for the PLO, and the initial Israeli reaction, a promise to arrest Palestinian negotiators on their return to the occupied territories, underscored Israel's rejection of such a role.
But both sides have since moved away from pushing the confrontation to a breaking point despite heated rhetoric over the weekend.
The Israeli government so far has not acted on its long-declared warning that it would withdraw from the process if the PLO's role were emphasized. And it toned down its threats to arrest the Palestinian delegates for meeting with the PLO, saying it would "investigate" them instead.
On their side, the Palestinians also backtracked on Saturday by returning to closed-door meetings with the PLO.
The US government appeared to have pressured the Palestinian delegation to stop the public show of its association with the PLO, and urged Israel to soften its tone, Western diplomats and Palestinian officials said. US Ambassador Roger Harrison met with Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi on Friday night and again on Saturday.
Similar pressures were exerted on Jordan not to promote the ongoing meetings in Amman, which were originally meant to be low-profile deliberations to reassess the peace process.
But Palestinian sources say Mr. Arafat and his aides believe that even public meetings with the delegation are not enough to ensure a substantive and direct role for the organization.
"Appearances are not enough. The situation will not change much unless the US and the Israel accept [dealing] with the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians inside the occupied territories and the diaspora," said one Palestinian official.
The PLO timed the public meeting with the delegation to influence Israeli public opinion on the eve of the Israel's June 23 elections and to discredit claims by the ruling Likud Party that it could reach peace with the Palestinians without the PLO.
"This is a message of peace to the Israeli voters," said PLO executive committee member Yasser Abed Rabo. Some PLO officials and delegates privately expressed concern that the "message" could backfire and boost Likud's chances because Israeli public opinion is still opposed to direct talks with the PLO.
The Amman meeting has also exposed more dramatically than ever the approach the US has taken toward the PLO since before the peace process started. According to Palestinian delegates and officials, the US has been fully aware of numerous meetings between delegates and PLO leaders.
After each of the five rounds of Arab-Israeli talks held in Washington, several Palestinian delegates headed to Tunis to report on the meetings and even to convey US messages to the PLO leadership.
Journalists have been watching, interviewing, and photographing delegation members entering PLO offices in Tunis, Cairo, and Amman. The delegation and the PLO officials usually stay in the same hotels; the PLO typically pays the bills and provides security.
"These meetings have been going on for a long time, and everybody knows it. I do not understand the big fuss about this meeting. The only difference is that cameras and reporters were allowed," said delegation member Ghassan al-Khatib.