THE Israeli government will move to repeal the law banning Israelis from meeting Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials when parliament gathers for its fall session, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Aug. 4. But he ruled out any direct role for the PLO in the Middle East peace negotiations, which are due to resume in Washington late this month.
"We have a [Palestinian] delegation. Any attempt now to change things is in my judgment a waste of precious time," Mr. Peres said in an interview with the Monitor.
As Israeli officials draw up their strategy for the coming peace talks with Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, Peres said the top Israeli priority vis-a-vis the Palestinians was to plan for elections in the occupied territories.
Such elections, he said, would be "the key to the whole implementation of autonomy" for the Palestinians, which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said he wants to achieve within six to nine months.
Palestinian negotiators envisage elections as soon as possible to choose a legislative assembly, but Peres made it clear that Israel would not accept that approach. The elections, he insisted, should be held as a result of negotiations, not before them, and should create a body with administrative powers, rather than a legislature.
"If we held [elections] at the beginning of negotiations, we would postpone the beginning of negotiations for rather a long time," he said, adding that the election of a Palestinian assembly with legislative powers "is not in tune with the Camp David agreement," the 1979 peace accord with Egypt that guides Israel's view of autonomy. A legislature, rather than an administrative body, "leads actually to the creation of a state, not to autonomy," he objected.
On the eve of Mr. Rabin's visit to the United States, Peres challenged the view that Israel's privileged relationship with Washington will be harder to maintain now that the cold war has ended, and that Israel's strategic importance has diminished.
"We remain the same partners with the same strengths, but with different goals," he argued. "Previously we had to balance the world, now we have to advance the people, economically and politically, which is even more difficult.
"If previously we had to confront the Russians, now we have to confront the situation," he added. "Because the best peace paintings, hung on deteriorating walls, will fall down. We need different walls, not just different paintings. And I think it is in the interests of the US to see the Middle East reconstructed."
Peres's statement that the government will introduce legislation ending the ban on PLO contacts came on the heels of a visit by six Israeli Arab leaders to Tunis, where the PLO is headquartered. No legal action has been taken against them, despite the admission by Knesset (parliament) member Hashem Mahemeed that during the trip he had met PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and other senior PLO officials.
Peres, however, brushed aside Mr. Arafat's offer to meet senior Israeli officials, dismissing such an event as "maybe a photo opportunity, and a great sensation. We don't need any added drama." The comment contrasted strongly with the kind of reasoning offered by the former Likud government for its refusal to deal with the PLO, which they traditionally branded a terrorist organization.
The foreign minister's pragmatism was also evident in his laconic response to reports that the Palestinians have been discussing with Jordanian officials the creation of a 20,000-strong police force under the planned autonomous regime, made up predominantly of men loyal to Arafat's Fatah wing of the PLO.
BEYOND wondering about the need for such a large force, Peres' only reaction was to point out that "the other problem with 20,000 is that somebody has to pay for it. The minute people come to terms with reality they will begin to understand the limitations to imagination," he said. "The great thing about imagination is that you don't have to budget it."
Hoping that the Israeli government's freeze on new housing starts in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories will mean that from now on "negotiations [with the Palestinians] will be done in an entirely new atmosphere," Peres also hopes that upcoming negotiations with the US over the terms of a $10 billion loan guarantee will be easier than under Likud.
"My feeling is that the air of malaise over the loan guarantees has disappeared, and once it has disappeared, the road is open to fair negotiations and promising results," he said.
While Rabin has taken overall charge of the bilateral negotiations in the Middle East peace talks, Peres has been given top responsibility for the multilateral negotiations on regional issues.
He attached particular importance to arms control talks, which he called "a domain of great wealth, geographically and technologically," and looked forward to "the many limited steps that could be taken and should not be postponed."