This week the Palestine National Council dramatically declared a Palestinian state and set a new policy agenda, just as Israel was forming a new government in response to its parliamentary election three weeks ago. The far-reaching implications of these events do not allow for the luxury of sitting back and expressing reservations. With a new Administration taking shape in Washington, and with the Soviets showing new interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the time is right for a U.S.-Soviet initiative: an American acceptance of PLO participation in peace negotiations in exchange for the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel.
Consider the decisions taken by the Palestine National Council. It is a mistake to ignore the major changes that were set in motion at the meeting in Algiers. The PNC accepted U.N. Resolution 242, which implicitly recognizes Israel's right to live in secure borders, meeting a longstanding American demand. The significance of this acceptance can be understood if one knows that many of those voting for it are refugees from towns now in Israel, for whom the long and painful Palestinian struggle had been historically tied to the right of return. For them, Resolution 242 was a bitter pill to swallow.
Of course, most Palestinians still would like to see Israel disappear, just as most Israelis would like to see an exclusively Jewish state without Palestinians. But the PNC decisions indicate the kind of realism that is required for practical compromise. In the end it is policy priorities, not dreams and ideals, that matter.
Two other developments in the Palestine National Council meeting are noteworthy: the unprecedented agreement by the more radical groups, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to abide by the rules of the majority, and the denunciation of "terrorism of all forms," meeting another American demand.
Given these important and constructive changes, it would be both mistaken and dangerous to up the ante in the name of some "ambiguities" in the new Palestinian position, especially in light of the hard line taken by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: that nothing that the PLO says or does will make it acceptable to Israel.
What's at stake now is American credibility, not only in the eyes of Palestinians but also in the eyes of American allies like Egypt and Jordan, which have worked hard to bring about these changes. If the Palestinians' more accommodating position fails to bear political fruit, the probable result will be serious radicalization, especially if the Israeli government imposes increasingly oppressive measures in the occupied territories.
Consider, too, the Israeli side of the equation. For months before the parliamentary elections, U.S. Middle East policy was on hold, partly on grounds that the political situation in Israel was unsettled. Now that the election results are in, it is clear that the situation in Israel will not settle down for some time, and that the United States cannot afford to tie its foreign policy to the domestic affairs of another country.
In this regard, two aspects of the Israeli vote are telling. The first is that, contrary to the hope of many Americans, the elections were almost unaffected by the Palestinian \o7 intifada\f7 , or uprising; both the Labor and Likud parties lost seats, and the success of the religious parties indicates that issues other than the \o7 intifada \f7 mattered a great deal. The second notable aspect confirms what many watchers of Israeli politics have been saying for some time: that the polarization in Israeli polity is deep-seated--encompassing ethnic, ideological, social and religious componentsand that events in the near future are unlikely to bring anything but the intensification of this polarization.
Despite Israeli indecision, the United States cannot, and should not, compel Israel to accept the PLO or impose a settlement on any state in the region. The Israeli and Arab actors will have to decide their national interests on their own and be prepared to accept the consequences. On the other hand, given America's interests in the region, U.S. policy cannot be constrained by the foreign-policy decisions and the domestic politics of other states. A political initiative is imperative.
The convergence of events offers a moment of opportunity for a Soviet American package deal that could benefit both the Israelis and the Palestinians: The United States should drop its objection to PLO participation in peace negotiations now that the PNC has responded favorably to American conditions. In exchange, Israel would be offered a strategic prize that it has long coveted: diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Given Israel's demographic weakness--its low Jewish birthrate--the government has placed much importance on relations with the Soviet Union, since emigration of Soviet Jewry remains the biggest hope for alleviating this serious problem.
As President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev meet next month, the Middle East could head their agenda, since new moves on arms control are not expected. The Soviets, who had not always been interested in seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict settled, are now likely to cooperate; they fear that war in the Middle East would endanger their domestic and international priorities. Yet the Soviets would have to justify new relations with Israel to their Arab allies; a new American position on the PLO could provide this justification. And, in the United States, both the President and the President-elect are enjoying a grace period that permits change.
The alternative to political movement is to sit back and watch events preempt American interests. As Palestinian suffering in the occupied territories continues, the radicals will not be silent for long. And the patience of the moderates will be seriously tried.