WASHINGTON — British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told President-elect George Bush on Thursday that he must give the Arab-Israeli conflict a higher priority than President Reagan has, and she urged him to begin by finding a way to reward the Palestine Liberation Organization for its implied recognition of Israel.
Appearing at a press conference after a private meeting with Bush at the vice president's official residence, Thatcher said that the PLO's endorsement this week of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 was "a modest step forward and something on which we could build."
She said that for the last 15 years, the United States, joined more recently by Britain and other Western allies, has urged the PLO to explicitly acknowledge Israel's right to exist, renounce terrorism and accept the U.N. resolutions that proclaim that all nations in the region--including Israel--have a right to live in peace within internationally recognized borders.
Sees Need to Encourage PLO
"You go on for years and years talking about problems and saying to people that you must come to accept these, you must do it as a condition," she said. "Now, when it looks as if they are trying to do it and may actually be doing it . . . if you don't encourage them . . . you won't get further moves."
Thatcher agreed with the official position of the Reagan Administration that the PLO, during its meeting in Algiers, did not go far enough to meet the demands of the West. But she reached an opposite conclusion, calling for the United States to make a reciprocal gesture to the PLO, in effect offering a little bit of recognition in exchange for the PLO moving closer toward recognizing Israel.
The Administration reacted to the Algiers announcement by stressing the areas in which the PLO's action fell short and by calling on the organization to meet the rest of the West's conditions.
Thatcher said she emphasized to Bush that Britain believes the Arab-Israeli conflict should assume a higher profile during the Bush Administration than it has during Reagan's tenure. She added that the pressure of events in the region probably will increase the prominence of the issue regardless of Bush's approach.
It seems certain that Bush will have to take seriously Thatcher's call for bold action because of her position as America's closest ally and the senior government leader in the West. But other Bush advisers are known to have urged him to move cautiously in establishing his Middle Eastern policy.
These advisers have warned the President-elect that the danger of failure in Middle East mediation probably outweighs the chance of success. Also, any U.S. gesture toward the PLO would be resented by Israel, producing new friction with a nation that enjoys substantial support in Congress.
The PLO, acting through the Palestine National Council, its so-called parliament in exile, accepted U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for peace negotiations. The organization also, for the first time, formally endorsed a two-state solution for the region, calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But the resolution did not mention Israel by name.
Thatcher said that the PLO communique was "a very long one and very complicated, and there obviously are a lot of things in it that none of us like." But, she added, "it may be the kind of progress that can lead somewhere."
Thatcher did not spell out the action she urged Bush to take in response to the PLO's move.
William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council staff expert on the Middle East, said that if Bush shares Thatcher's view that the resolution contains some positive elements, he should send a clear signal to the PLO that Washington is interested in doing business, provided the organization meets the other U.S. conditions.
Meanwhile, the National Assn. of Arab Americans called on the Reagan Administration to open a dialogue with the PLO.
George Moses, president of the Arab-American group, said that the association "applauds the courageous action of the PLO, and we will do whatever we can to persuade our government to use its influence to bring Israel to the negotiating table."