Disclosures of secret contacts between members of Israel's Likud bloc and prominent supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have revealed unexpected common ground for understanding between the right-wing party and Palestinian nationalists. The revelations have drawn immediate denunciations from Israelis and Palestinians. Spokesmen in both camps say those involved in the informal contacts overstepped the consensus of their communities.
But in the view of some observers here, the plan for extensive Palestinain self-rule in the occupied territories - worked out between three Palestinians and a Likud member - could act as a model for future negotiations. These observers caution that the four months of informal contact are far from being the beginning of an official negotiating process that might lead to a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The contacts were held between Moshe Amirav, a member of the Herut Party, the major element in the Likud bloc, and three Palestinians: Sari Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor at Bir Zeit University; Faisal Husseini, an activist considered to be the senior PLO representative in the West Bank (he is currently under arrest); and Salah Zuheikeh, a newspaper editor.
The talks produced agreement on a plan for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an interim stage to a final settlement. According to the proposal a Palestinian ``entity'' would be established, whose administration would have the right to control natural resources and govern the Palestinian population. The entity's capital would be in East Jerusalem and it would have elements of nationhood: a flag, a national anthem, a currency, and the authority to issue travel documents, though Israel would control foreign affairs. Israeli troops would withdraw to specific strategic locations.
Other details of what was agreed upon were blurred during the storm of controversy which erupted this week after the contacts were revealed.
Some members of the Likud called for Amirav's expulsion, and Professor Nusseibeh was beaten by radical students.
Thrown on the defensive, Amirav said he acted on his own - though his proposals could certainly be acceptable to his party. He indicated his ideas were merely a broader version of the Palestinian autonomy scheme proposed first by former (Likud) Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, and later incorporated into the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.
The Begin plan has been attacked in the past by the Labor Party as containing the seed of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Amirav said he favored continued Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, adding that ultimately Jordan would become the Palestinian state. The Palestinians who met with Amirav said they saw the interim arrangement as leading to an independent Palestinan state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But both were able to agree on an interim period of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while setting aside their competing visions of an ultimate settlement.
Amirav presented the understanding as a Likud alternative to the international Mideast peace conference proposed by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, head of the Labor Party. Likud opposes such a parley saying it would subject Israel to strong international pressure to make vital territorial concessions.
The understanding was also an alternative to the Labor Party's ``Jordan option'' - specifically Mr. Peres's attempts to agree on joint Israeli-Jordanian rule in talks with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at an international conference.
The Palestinians also said Amirav gave them the distinct impression that top Likud officials, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, were aware of the contacts. Mr. Shamir and party officials promptly disassociated themselves from Amirav's talks once they were public saying the private initiative contradicted Likud's staunch opposition to any PLO contact.