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Time for Israeli-PLO Talks

Under present conditions, Israel might have more to gain from agreeing to talk to the PLO than sticking to its present policy

OPENING direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at this juncture in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations could benefit Israel's short- and long-term interests and provide the peace process with renewed momentum. The United States should encourage such a move and in return bring pressure to bear on the PLO to demonstrate more flexibility.

Excluding the PLO formally from past direct talks may have given Israel some room for political maneuverability and some gains in establishing the peace negotiating parameters. The growing strength of the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists (Hamas), however, the perplexing direction that Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations have taken, and the changing of administrations in Washington all raise a question as to whether Israel's interests and the prospects for peace are not better served through dir ect negotiations with the PLO.

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Under both the recent Likud government and the present Labor government, Israel has refused to open direct negotiations with the PLO. It has claimed that (a) the PLO is a fragmented organization and has neither the mandate nor the ability to represent all Palestinians, (b) the PLO is a subversive, terrorist organization committed to Israel's destruction through armed struggle, and (c) direct talks with the PLO, as Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres claims, are tantamount to recognizing the PLO's ultim ate objective - the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, to which Israel vehemently objects.

There is ample evidence to support the Israeli contentions. Palestinian groups inside and outside the territories from the extreme left, such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to the extreme right, such as Hamas, oppose the PLO peace overture. Acts of terrorism continue to claim the lives of innocent Israelis, and the PLO charter still calls for Israel's destruction and the establishment of a secular Palestinian state to replace it.

Considering the realities of the Palestinian question, however, and the state of the negotiating process, the Israeli argument loses its validity and is no longer relevant. For nearly two decades the PLO has been recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, not only by the United Nations and the Arab League but by the Palestinian people. No other group has come forward to make a claim to the contrary, nor has any one challenged the legitimacy of the Palestinian National Council (the P alestinian parliament in exile) headed by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

More compelling is the fact that the Palestinian delegation to the peace negotiations has been following PLO directives and has not deviated from the PLO position on any issue of substance concerning the Palestinians.

The greater danger to Israel today emanates from the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the West Bank and Gaza, not from Palestinian nationalists. The more open and legitimate PLO involvement in the bilateral negotiations becomes, the harder it will be for Hamas to undermine the peace process and thereby the position of the Palestinian delegates who derive their power from the PLO. By denying the PLO a formal role, Israel is widening the leadership gap in the territories, which Hamas is eager to fill. Th is policy also exempts the PLO from any responsibility for acts of violence committed against Israel by Hamas or even some PLO sympathizers.

Conversely, agreements to which the PLO leadership is formally connected have a higher probability of being implemented, if for no other reason than maintaining the PLO's credibility.

The Palestinian nationalists representing mainstream Palestinians can justify continuing the peace process to their constituencies if they show discernible progress in the talks with Israel - even if the issue of statehood is postponed until a much later date. No such progress can be achieved without the PLO's total support, and only the PLO can provide the rationale for leaving the core issue of sovereignty for some future time. In addition, if past experience provides any guidance, no Palestinian dele gation could commit itself to any agreement with Israel without a PLO sanction.

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Finally, although the Israelis would like to think that President-elect Clinton will be more sympathetic to Israel than his predecessor, that does not suggest a less aggressive approach by the Clinton administration. Mostly drawn from the Carter administration ranks, Mr. Clinton's foreign policy team may find it advantageous to open a direct dialogue with the PLO. Israel should take the initiative, perhaps the inevitable step, by expressing its willingness to open a direct dialogue with the PLO now and s eek US support in getting the PLO to demonstrate some flexibility on an interim agreement on self-rule, which has stalled progress in the negotiations.

The advent of the Labor government in Israel and a new administration in Washington offers new opportunities for major developments, if not a breakthrough, in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who promised to abolish the law that made it illegal for Israelis to talk to PLO members, should apply the same commitment to his own government.

It is an illusion to think that the PLO has been, or can be, excluded in the future from representing the Palestinians.

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