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Mideast Policy Is Snagged on Semantics

August 24, 1986|JEROME SEGAL | Jerome Segal is a research associate at the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Common wisdom has it that intransigence on the part of the Palestine Liberation Organization is a prime obstacle in Middle East peace-seeking. King Hassan's insistence that only the PLO can speak for Palestinians supposedly caused the impasse in Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' historic visit to Morocco last month. After all, wasn't it PLO intransigence that caused King Hussein of Jordan to fail in his attempt at peace-seeking earlier this year?

A careful review of the facts does not support this interpretation. It reveals significant flexibility on the part of the PLO and U.S. failure to take advantage of that.

When Hussein broke off his effort to bring about negotiations in February, he made clear that he was exasperated by his experience with the PLO. Specifically, he felt that the organization had reneged on a commitment to accept U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for an international peace conference. (The resolutions recognize Israel's right to exist in peace and call for negotiations in which peace would be achieved through return of territory occupied in the 1967 war.)

For months Hussein had been telling Washington that he had the PLO's agreement to accept 242 and 338 if the United States agreed to participate in an international conference to which the PLO would be invited. After great effort, Hussein attained U.S. acceptance of PLO participation provided the PLO clearly and publicly accepted 242 and 338, renounced terrorism and was willing to negotiate with Israel.

When Hussein reported this progress to the PLO, he found that it was willing to accept 242 and 338 only if the United States accepted the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The PLO gave Hussein, for conveyance to Washington, various formulas whereby it would accept 242 and 338. Shortly thereafter he threw in the towel.

A recent exchange of letters between the State Department and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sheds interesting light on what happened. It suggests that intransigence on the part of the United States helped to derail the peace process.

Hussein received the PLO proposals on Feb. 5. He washed his hands of the PLO in a speech on Feb. 19. Hamilton asked whether the State Department had knowledge of the PLO proposals before the speech. Yes, the department had seen them on Feb. 6. Hamilton asked if State had considered the proposals an improvement on previous PLO positions. State responded, "Explicit references to 242 and 338 and to Israel are new." This was progress; previous PLO statements had avoided direct mention of Israel and of the key resolutions.

Why, then, did the effort collapse two weeks later?

From the U.S. point of view, the central problem was the PLO's insistence that the United States support Palestinians' right of self-determination. Hamilton asked, "Is the reference to Palestinian right of self-determination . . . consistent with U.S. policy?" State responded: "The term 'self-determination' has in the Middle East context come to connote the establishment of a Palestinian state. . . . The United States does not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Therefore such a reference is not consistent with U.S. policy."

In other words, the United States would not agree to the PLO's precondition. Presumably this was conveyed to Hussein and thus he abandoned the effort.

But what of our position? We refuse to recognize a Palestinian right of self-determination because we oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Does this make sense? Are we against a Palestinian state in principle?

In the original U.N. partition resolution, which legitimized the creation of Israel, it was proposed that there be both a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The United States supported that resolution. Why do we now not support the establishment of a Palestinian state? Apparently because of fears that it would be hostile toward Israel and a further source of conflict in the Middle East. Perhaps this judgment is correct; perhaps it is incorrect. But what are we to say of the logic of the position?

On principle it would seem hard to deny that the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. After all, if the Israelis have such a right, how can the Palestinians have less? The problem is that the right to self-determination does not include the right to establish a state that would then threaten its neighbors. The U.S. concern, and the concern of many Israelis, is how the Palestinians would exercise their right to self-determination.

Logically speaking, however, concerns about how a right is exercised are not a basis for denying that the right exists. Rights are not absolute. (Free speech does not mean you can yell "Fire!" in a theater.) The United States can with consistency grant that the Palestinians have a right to self-determination, even grant that in principle they have the right to an independent state, and still oppose the establishment of such a state until it can be shown that the exercise of that right will not violate or threaten the rights of others.

Indeed, approaching these abstract issues of rights in this way would help to bring about and focus peace negotiations on exactly the right point: How to satisfy both the Palestinian right to self-determination and the Israeli right to live in peace.

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