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A time to bargain

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The Palestine Liberation Organization faces a momentous choice. It can either take the path of approving negotiations with Israel on West Bank autonomy - or it can reject the Reagan peace plan and probably lose its last chance to establish a homeland for the Palestinian people. There are risks with either choice. But with time running out in the occupied West Bank, fast being absorbed by Israel, it is to be hoped that the Palestine National Council, the PLO parliament-in-exile, now meeting in Algiers chooses the path of peace.

What is needed is a green light for a joint Jordanian-West Bank negotiating team to open talks for the establishment of a Palestinian entity in the West Bank in confederation with Jordan. Inasmuch as Israel says it will not negotiate directly with the PLO, such a team would probably have to include Palestinian surrogates from the West Bank. But it would still represent the moderate leadership of the PLO. And it would have the diplomatic backing of the United States and the international community at large.

Once this procedural obstacle was overcome, the ball would be in Washington's court. The onus would be on the US to produce the next step of progress. That may or may not be of comfort to the PLO, of course, for it is far from clear how firmly President Rea-gan is prepared to deal with Israel in order to implement his plan for a Middle East peace. That is the risk. Even to get the West Bank talks started, the United States still would have to obtain something from Menachem Begin's government - a withdrawal from Lebanon or a temporary freeze on settlements in the West Bank - in order to reassure Jordan and the Palestinians that negotiations would not be a hopeless exercise. With Israel spinning out the Lebanese withdrawal talks and accelerating settlement of the West Bank, that US diplomatic objective is difficult enough. With an American presidential election looming, it becomes formidable.

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