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PERSPECTIVES ON MIDEAST PEACE : Finding a Way, Apart From the Madding Crowd : Face to face, away from contentious Arabs and misguided Americans, Israel and the PLO could at last come to terms.

September 13, 1993|DAOUD KUTTAB | Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist writing for the Jerusalem Arabic daily Al-Quds. He is also a television documentary producer.

JERUSALEM — The historic Palestinian-Israeli agreement was successfully concluded primarily because representatives of both sides talked face to face and without outside interference.

When PLO and Israeli officials agreed to talk face to face, an important political statement was being made. The national representatives of both peoples were de facto recognizing each other and accepting the right of the other to exist. This fact, more than the agreement itself, is the major breakthrough.

For a long time, Palestinians couldn't say the word Israel, let alone conduct negotiations with Israelis. Israel was created on Palestinian land, and accepting it would, in their minds, be tantamount to rewarding aggression. To Israelis, the name PLO was abhorrent because it stood for the entire Palestinian people and their national rights. The face-to-face meetings by the representatives of both national movements was the best proof that this denial syndrome was being healed.

The absence of outsiders was also important for the success of the talks. Much of the problems between Palestinians and Israelis is the fault of elements from outside the region. At first, European Zionists persuaded Lord Balfour to support a Jewish state in Palestine. At the same time, the British also promised the Arabs to help them obtain independence in Palestine if the allies won the war against Turkey. Europe also indirectly intervened in the conflict when it caused the immigration of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

On the Palestinian side, the Arab world gave lip service to Palestinians but rarely came through. The Arab promises gave Palestinians exaggerated hopes, but when the time of reckoning came, the Arab leaders showed little interest in actually helping Palestinians; similarly, Arab oil was not used effectively to help Palestinians. But the vociferous Arab rhetoric and Arab wealth and clout were effectively used by Israel to rally support for itself.

Even after the defeats of 1948 and 1967, Arab, Soviet and Western interference continued and even increased. This external interference caused further polarization as the various outside powers pulled Palestinians to one side and Israelis to another while denying them the opportunity to sit down and settle their problems.

The absence of the Arabs and their destructive one-upmanship allowed Palestinians to negotiate a reasonable agreement with Israel. The anger expressed by many Arab leaders about the lack of Palestinian coordination with them is not based merely on the fact that Syria or Jordan wanted to be in the know. The Arab leaders who were upset at the PLO for keeping them in the dark were angry because Palestinians proved they can reach an agreement without them. The Palestinian cause has for too long been an easy escape for undemocratic Arab leaders who simply wanted to divert their people's attention from their own domestic failures.

America's absence in these talks was similarly necessary for their success. With all the effort and time that the United States has spent on the Middle East peace process, it was not the neutral unbiased party that is needed to turn swords into plowshares. The United States tried to force the parties to come up with a peace agreement that simply reflected the balance of forces between both sides. There was no attempt to push for a fair or just deal, nor was there a clear understanding that an agreement forced on the weaker side simply wouldn't work.

The United States also made a fatal mistake in its conduct of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Washington fell for the Israeli trap of seriously believing that an alternative Palestinian leadership could be created. By following the former hard-line Israeli government's dictates that limited Palestinian negotiators to those from the occupied territories, the United States was meddling in the very sacred right of any people in the world: the right to choose their representatives.

This misguided U.S. policy continued with the absurd policy that prevented U.S. diplomats from exercising one of their most basic jobs: to talk with the decision-makers of the place they are based in. U.S. policy, which was forged to a large degree under pressure from a single-minded pro-Israel lobby in Congress, made it illegal for any U.S. official to simply talk with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Even after it was revealed last week that Israeli officials had been talking secretly with the PLO for months, U.S. officials were still not allowed to utter a word to a PLO official because of the undefined and unsubstantiated issue of terrorism. This demonization of the representatives of the Palestinian people certainly should have been canceled the moment the PLO supported the Madrid peace process and appointed the delegates to the these talks.

No wonder Palestinians and Israelis wanted to meet in Norway, away from the press, away from Arabs and away from Americans. The future of the region and the next generations mattered to them a lot more than to the outside parties. The lessons of this experience should be taken to heart.

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