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Arafat Seizes the Initiative and Carries His PLO Campaign to the U.S.

December 11, 1988|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat is riding high these days. His friends and allies are elated. His enemies are on the defensive, confused and perplexed. In a scant four weeks, the Palestinian leader has seized the diplomatic initiative in the Arab-Israeli conflict--with a flare that impresses friend and foe alike.

Arafat's current approach can be compared to a military campaign. First he rallied his troops at Algiers. With morale boosted by the issuance of an inconsequential declaration of independence, Arafat then swept the battlefield in Europe and the Third World with a second declaration, more moderate in language and tone. Now, with his actions last week in Sweden, Arafat is seen to be laying siege to the final bastion, the heretofore impregnable United States.

Arafat's campaign began last month in Algiers at a meeting of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' Legislature. At Arafat's behest, the PNC produced two declarations. The first, a Palestinian declaration of independence, was widely dismissed--outside the Arab world--as, at best, a future hope. One State Department analyst commented at the time, "At least George Washington controlled the area around Valley Forge in 1776."

The second declaration, however, was regarded by many as a significant departure by the PLO, a sincere attempt to redefine and moderate means and ends. In that declaration, the PNC addressed what for Arabs are the contentious issues of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of two key U.N. Security Council resolutions, 242 and 338, that provide for secure and recognized borders for all Middle East states--including Israel.

Among those reacting favorably to the PLO's new formulation was William B. Quandt, a senior Middle East adviser to President Jimmy Carter, now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. Quandt's reputation for understanding the Middle East has not declined since he left the government. So, when he decreed the Algiers declaration a good thing, State Department officials listened.

Quandt sees the new PNC document reflecting a major shift in Palestinian thinking over the past 12 months. "In 1987, the PNC rejected 242 and reasserted the right to armed struggle," he said. "In 1988, they are prepared to attend an international conference based on 242." Just as important, in Quandt's view, was a willingness on the part of the PNC to tone down its usual inflammatory rhetoric. "In tone alone," Quandt said, "the change was dramatic."

America's European allies, including Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were equally impressed. The Europeans saw the change in tone and substance at Algiers as setting the stage for explicit PLO recognition of Israel. What followed was last week's two-day session in Stockholm, where Arafat, meeting with a delegation of American Jews, took another step in the direction of that recognition. In a joint communique issued after the meeting, Arafat "accepted . . . the existentence of Israel as a state in the region" in conjunction with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The Stockholm declaration was a jolt to Israel. In private, Israeli officials had already acknowledged Arafat's gain among the Europeans. Now he was taking his case to mainstream American Jews. And even as Israeli leaders publicly tried to minimize the significance of the Stockholm meeting, Israeli spokesmen were privately saying, in the words of one key diplomat, "something very interesting is taking place."

State Department officials were also impressed by the results in Stockholm. They focused on Arafat's latest and, in their view, least equivocal rejection of terrorism. What has appeared most satisfying to them, however, was the slow but steady evolution of Palestinian thinking, as it inches toward the U.S. view. A State Department official said, "So far it's going all right. We are pleased if each meeting Arafat has gets us a little further."

But if the recent past is any guide, storming fortress America is going to be no mean task. The circumlocutions and nuances that seem to impress the Europeans, some U.S. intellectuals and now even a few American Jews, don't get Arafat anywhere with George P. Shultz and his State Department.

While State officials are happy to have Arafat inching toward Washington, they firmly reject any form of reciprocity. They insist that the basic conditions for talking officially, much less negotiating, with Arafat are unchanged--they remain the PLO's unqualified rejection of terrorism, acceptance of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and acknowledgment of Israel's right to exist.

Moreover, State Department officials bristle at the suggestion, whether from Thatcher or other well-intentioned allies, that the United States demonstrate any new "flexibility" in applying these conditions.

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