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.
Yet what alternative is left for the West Bank Palestinians and the PLO leadership? They can readily see that even a special commission's indictment of Ariel Sharon was not sufficient to bring down the former Israeli defense minister (or elicit a public reprimand from Prime Minister Begin). Mr. Sharon is architect of the policy of colonization of the West Bank, he shares Mr. Begin's expansionist ambitions for Israel, and he remains in the government. It is clear that, if he is given authority to proceed with expropriation of Palestinian land by eminent domain, if dissenting Israeli elements do not stop such action, and if Yasser Arafat and his fellow PLO moderates do not carry the day in Algiers, it will not be much longer before there is nothing left to negotiate about. Which is not to say that Israel could regard such a fait accompli as a long-term solution, for it would merely drive Palestinians to resort to wholesale terrorism and invite further instability in the Middle East.
For all the uncertainties, however, the Palestine National Council should take a bold chance for a negotiated settlement. By opting for the course preferred by Yasser Arafat and other more moderate PLO leaders, by giving King Hussein a mandate to join peace talks, it would gain credibility in the eyes of the world and at least keep alive the prospects for a peaceful solution of the Palestinian problem. If it does not choose this path, it will write still another chapter in the Arabs' long and tragic history of lost opportunities.