TUNIS, TUNISIA — A one-time world pariah has become a would-be peacemaker. Yasser Arafat now works at "a great historical opportunity"--the first such opportunity in 40 years, he says--to settle the future fate of Palestinians through negotiations. The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, during three days of in-depth conversations in Tunis and Algiers at the end of January, talked about the United States being in a position to play a "decisive role" in this process.
Arafat claimed that new diplomatic momentum has developed since November in Palestinian peace efforts--involving the United States, Sweden, the European Community and Arab countries. That momentum must not be lost, he emphasized, because the alternative would be tragedy for Jews and Arabs alike.
Arafat is playing what he calls "the American card." He began by accepting Washington's demand that the PLO recognize Israel's right to a secure existence and renounce terrorism before any U.S.-PLO discussions; he did it at a news conference following his speech before the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva on Dec. 14. Arafat's basic objective, in return, is establishment of an independent Palestinian state on Arab territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 War. In his approach to the United States, he claims having volunteered to help investigate the terrorist bomb aboard Pan Am 103 and having interceded to free the U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
A small, bouncy 59-year-old, Arafat usually appeared relaxed during formal tape-recorded interviews and less formal meals, but a sense of eye-darting impatience also came through. In our first discussion at a seaside mansion near Carthago--once the home of the French resident general, now the residence of the PLO ambassador to Tunisia--Arafat explained at length how tough it had been for him to prevail on his PLO "brothers" that it was vital to "play the American card" even while Palestinians were fighting in Gaza and the West Bank.
The intifada-- the uprising in Israeli-occupied territories--could not and would not be halted, he said. He even speculated that he might lift his order that prohibits Palestinians from returning fire with fire in battles with the Israeli army. But to achieve more than increasingly deadly confrontations, the PLO cause had to break out of diplomatic isolation.
Momentum toward negotiation began building almost eight months ago, after imaginative and secret mediation from faraway Sweden by Foreign Minister Sten Sture Andersson and his top aides. The Swedes were the ones who convinced Arafat that the only plausible road to peaceful settlement with Israel was via the United States. The intifada was already costing hundreds of Arab lives, most of them young people.
As violence grew, the Reagan Administration also began looking for new routes toward Middle East peace. After the November U.S. elections, and with the approval of George Bush, Washington told Sweden that it would accept a PLO dialogue once Arafat met U.S. conditions.
Arafat believes that three key events occurred to create a propitious climate for settlement.
The first, he said, was "the Soviet-American detente on the international level"; it led the superpowers "to cool down all the hot spots and soothe all the regional problems." It provided a background for addressing Middle East conflict. Washington and Moscow, Arafat suggested, may no longer use the Palestinian issue for their own purposes of confrontation.
The second "is the return of Egypt to Arab unity," allowing Cairo to rejoin the Arab summit group and the Arab League after 10 years of absence (Egypt was expelled for signing the Camp David accords with Israel). Acting in concert for the first time, the Arabs may be a significant element in peace diplomacy. Although King Hussein of Jordan announced last July that the West Bank problem would no longer be a Jordanian responsibility, Arafat said the PLO was ready to establish a confederation between a new Palestinian state and Jordan if the monarch was willing.
The third is "the Palestinian level--the intifada. " Arafat said the uprising began taking shape as early as 1986 although it did not fully emerge until December, 1987. It became possible, he went on, "when the barrier of fear was broken among our people." Now the intifada "is similar to what the Indians had done in facing the British occupation." He said 100% of the 1.7 million Palestinians in the occupied territories support the intifada .
The crucial thing now, he argued, is to convince the United States to prevail on Israel to accept either direct negotiations with the PLO or to attend an international conference on return of the occupied lands. "France, China and Russia and even Britain support the conference," he said, "so why doesn't the U.S. agree, too?"