CRACKS are appearing in the wall of Israeli refusal to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Left-wing Israelis are urging the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to move toward official recognition of the PLO as a way of rescuing the Arab-Israeli peace talks from their current impasse.
Little progress is expected in the peace negotiations as they resume today in Washington for what may be the last round before the inauguration of President-elect Clinton on Jan. 20.
But Israel's anticipated repeal of a law banning contacts with the PLO may be the first step toward direct talks with the Tunis-based leadership, according to some left-wing Israelis and Palestinians. The bill removing the ban won preliminary approval by the Israeli parliament last Wednesday. A final vote on the bill is expected in about two weeks.
Mr. Rabin's government has maintained that legalizing contacts with the PLO will not alter its government's policy of refusing to talk officially to the organization. "Cancellation of the ban does not signify a change in the government's position, which continues to regard the PLO as a terrorist group and opposes its participation in the political negotiations with the representatives of the Palestinian residents of the territories," Justice Minister David Libai said last week.
Still, some Israelis and Palestinians see signs of a slow, but steady Israeli move toward recognition of the PLO.
"It's a one-way process. I don't see any way out of it. Everything points in the direction of recognition," says Samuel Peleg, a political scientist and spokesman for Israeli Peace Now, following a recent meeting with Rabin.
Dr. Peleg notes that in recent months the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks has begun to meet publicly with the Tunis-based leadership, whereas in the past such contacts were covert.
Rabin has also begun to hint that Israel might be able to do business with so-called "moderates" in the PLO's Tunis-based headquarters, even though he has attacked PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as an "obstacle to peace."
"Arafat aspires to everything and nothing. This is not the way of thinking of many Palestinians in the territories and, I believe, of some Palestinians in Tunis," Rabin said in an interview published yesterday in the Sunday Times of London.
Earlier, Rabin declared that if elections were held for an autonomous government in the territories "the PLO-Tunis will have a status like the World Zionist Organization following the establishment of the state."
COMPARISONS between the PLO and the World Zionist Organization - which played an important role in the founding of the Israeli state - are evidence of a slow but apparently inexorable drift toward recognition of PLO legitimacy.
"The semantics are the first indication of this zig-zag progress toward recognizing a foe," Peleg says. "Previous Israeli governments have not even mentioned Arafat in their references to the peace talks."
Left-wing parliament member Naomi Hazan says official Israeli recognition of the PLO would bolster the credibility of the Palestinian delegation from the territories that is currently trying to negotiate an autonomy accord with Israel.
The Palestinian delegation - composed of political moderates - has lost substantial ground to left-wing and fundamentalist Muslim groups in the territories that reject the peace process altogether. "If their [the delegation's] position is insecure, they are less capable of maneuvering," Hazan observes. Recent Israeli concessions - offering the Palestinians a much broader form of self-government than Israel's former Likud government ever envisioned - have made little impact on the Palestinian "street."
Meanwhile, Mr. Arafat's appetite for gaining Israeli recognition has been highlighted by two unprecedented interviews with the Israeli press in the past two weeks. Arafat has been known to keep journalists waiting for days, but agreed to meet Israeli journalists within hours of their arrival at his headquarters.
Last week, Taysir Arouri, a Jordan-based PLO consultant to the Palestinian peace delegation, told Israel's Army Radio station that repeal of the law banning PLO contacts would be a "preparatory step toward direct participation by the PLO in the peace process, and preparation for an Israeli recognition of the PLO."