THE chief Palestinian negotiators to the Middle East peace process nearly resigned Aug. 8-9 - a move that would end 21 months of talks. Turmoil among the Palestinians is nothing new. But the threat of resignations shows clearly the growing chasm between the PLO leadership perched in lovely Tunis and the negotiators from the occupied territories in Israel who represent people living in a prison-camp atmosphere.
After 21 months of talks, the PLO and Yasser Arafat seem ready to make a deal with Israel. PLO officials now say a negotiated settlement and peace are no longer a tactic but a strategy. Mr. Arafat wants to realize the dream of homeland and of leading his people. This is an important breakthrough. But it contains dangers and vulnerabilities that seem all too obvious to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who aren't ready to sacrifice their long struggle unless the terms are fair. For Arafat to communic ate new positions to Secretary of State Warren Christopher through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak without checking with the internal Palestinian leadership, as he did, shows that Arafat may be out of touch.
No doubt the threatened resignations of Hanan Ashwari, Faisal al-Husseini, and Saeb Erekat on Aug. 8, and the possible resignation of chief negotiator Heider Abdel-Shafi on Aug. 9, were intended as a splash of cold water to wake Arafat up.
It would be nice to believe the United States had no part in the Palestinian turmoil. After all, it is sponsoring the peace process and must be evenhanded if the process is to succeed; Mr. Christopher did just visit the region.
But the US did have a part. The main disagreements and internal pressures among the Palestinians are directly traceable to the June 30 paper presented by the Americans to the Palestinians at the end of the 10th round of talks. In the paper the US backed away from its original letter of assurance and diluted the principles of sovereignty, and for the first time would not clearly state its commitment to crucial UN resolutions 242 and 338. At the same time the Israelis attempted to take a discussion of East
Jerusalem off the table.
The Palestinian image is controversial. But it is not the issue here. A different question must be asked: Why did the Americans change the rules? What did officials in the Clinton administration think would happen?
Answers to these questions bear directly on the trust indispensable to a just outcome in the Middle East.