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Did Arafat blink?

IT looks suspiciously as though Yasser Arafat, that wily old fox of Middle East politics, has blinked. At a meeting of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinians' parliament in exile) in Algiers last week, Mr. Arafat declared the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, cloaked within language that seemed implicitly to recognize the state of Israel. At first glimpse, this might not amount to much.

The ``state'' declared independent is in fact Gaza and the West Bank, both heavily occupied by Israeli forces. The Israelis with military efficiency prevented any independence day celebrations, confining Palestinians to their homes, cutting off power and water, and barring news coverage of the Algiers declaration on television. Though the blackout may have been effective, it is unrealistic to think that the Israelis have stifled bitter and simmering Palestinian resistance.

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Meanwhile, the implicit recognition of Israel by Arafat is just that - implicit. It is not explicit, and it is hedged by constitutional complexity. It revolves around acceptance of United Nations Resolution 242 (and 338 which implements 242) and experts are divided as to whether acceptance of Resolution 242 really means recognition of Israel. Arafat has not helped matters since, being characteristically elusive about the intent of his Palestine Liberation Organization.

Both the Likud and Labor parties in Israel have dismissed the PLO initiative as meaningless, and the United States says unilateral actions are not good enough; the status of the West Bank and Gaza must be decided through a process of negotiation.

This hard line may be technically correct. But in the Byzantine world of Middle East politics, one should not overlook the fact that there was, at Algiers, significant movement. Arafat has, in the ranks of his PLO, fanatical opponents of Israel, resistant to concessions. He has tried to carry them along with him while signaling, particularly to the US, a more moderate stance. Much of the spectacle at Algiers was designed to convince Washington, and especially the incoming Bush administration, that Arafat is moving in the right direction, albeit while covering his flanks from attack by more conservative Palestinian elements.

It is a signal that should not be missed.

The Israelis are understandably skeptical. They have long been dealing with PLO political prevarication, as well as the raw cruelty of PLO terrorism. But they should not be able to block American exploration of the new PLO initiative to see what degree of seriousness lies behind it.

Was it all double talk at Algiers? Or is there serious movement within the PLO to bring about by diplomacy what terrorism and violence have been unable to achieve?

There is a Palestinian case. The Palestinians are talented and intelligent people, many of them dispersed throughout the Middle East in productive roles. Many more are living a life of anger-threaded hopelessness in Gaza and the West Bank. They at least deserve a better life. Even Palestinians who will never return there support some kind of national identity, some kind of homeland.

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There is also an Israeli case. Israel is suspicious of any moves that would jeopardize the security of its little state set in an Arab sea. It is nervous about concessions that would not preserve that security.

There is a long history of injustice and distrust that lies between Palestinian and Israeli. It is a history that has consistently thwarted US peace efforts and sent US diplomats scurrying back to Washington in embarrassment.

That is no reason for not trying again.

The US is probably the only nation with any hope of ``delivering'' Israel to any peace table. As such, it is accepted by the Arabs as an inevitable participant in the peace process.

It has often been a thankless role, but it is one that the Bush administration cannot abrogate.

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