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Dark at the End of the Tunnel

February 21, 1986

King Hussein has had enough. After a year of intermittent efforts to find common political ground with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organizaton, the Jordanian leader has concluded that he was wasting his time on a fool's errand. The problem, Hussein said in an extraordinary 3 1/2 hour speech, was that Arafat would not keep his word on devising a joint approach for peace talks with Israel. Six months ago Arafat promised to endorse key U.N. Security Council resolutions that implicitly accept Israel's political legitimacy. Two weeks ago he reneged. With that, Hussein was left without an essential starting point for talking with Israel about the future of the West Bank.

The collapse of PLO-Jordan negotations comes as something less than a surprise. The PLO remains deeply and sometimes violently divided over the political course it should follow. While some in its upper ranks may favor concessions and compromises in an effort to advance the Palestinian cause, others are determined to accept nothing less than full achievement of the PLO's stated political goals, foremost of which is the destruction of Israel. Year after year, the only consensus the PLO shows itself capable of is for maintaining the sterile status quo. Arafat does not seem embarrassed to represent that consensus. It is in fact the very basis of his survival.

King Hussein long ago concluded that it would be folly for him to ignore or try to work around the inertia inherent in the PLO consensus. Politically, he can say as he did again this week that he is bound by the Arab summit declaration of 1974, which recognized the PLO as the sole bargaining agent for the Palestinian people. He knows also that he would be putting his life on the line should he open talks with Israel without the endorsement of the PLO, including its radical factions.

And so, once again, a dead-end seems to have been reached in what has come to be known--perhaps with greater hope than accuracy--as the peace process. In Israel, Prime Minister Shimon Peres has raised the possibility of a unilateral next step on the West Bank. He calls it "devolution," which means lifting some Israeli controls over local affairs by granting greater responsibility to the area's Arab inhabitants. The clear aim, which again may be more of a hope than an attainable reality, would be to encourage the development of a recognized indigenous leadership that in time might emerge as a substitute for the PLO. It is an idea worth trying, if for no better reason than that everything else seems to have failed.

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