Conference on Palestine Begins with Two Unexpected Developments
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Conference on Palestine Begins with Two Unexpected Developments

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The United Nations-sponsored Conference on Palestine opened here yesterday with an unexpectedly strong speech by UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar calling for self-determination for the Palestinian people but stopping just short of calling for a Palestinian state.

Another unexpected development, one which caused fury among the Arabs at the conference, was the attendance by 300 international press correspondents at a press conference called by Israeli Ambassador Ovadia Soffer earlier in the day. His denunciation of the gathering was thus the first news item of the day.

In his speech, de Cueller said the plight of the Palestinian people was highlighted by last year’s massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He said the problem of the Palestinians was no closer to a solution than it was 36 years ago when the UN first addressed the problem. “The tragic events of Lebanon culminating in the massacre of unarmed men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila brought to our attention the need to find urgently a solution to the question of Palestine,” de Cueller said.

Solutions, he added, “must be based on the exercise by the Palestinian people of their inalienable rights which have been reaffirmed in a number of General Assembly resolutions. ” He also stated that all Israeli forces must be withdrawn from the territory Israel captured in the Six-Day War and said the question of Jerusalem remained crucial to settling the Palestinian issue.

Soffer, at his press conference, said Israel is not attending the gathering on Palestine. “This conference will not be a dialogue, because one single opinion will dominate: that of the extremist Arab States who are its initiators,” he said. “For 35 years, these states have opposed any Jewish-Arab coexistence in the Middle East, and have denied the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

This conference is a mirror image of their policy of intransigence and refusal, and will therefore in no way serve the cause of peace.”


Soffer’s view of the conference was borne out when Chedli Klibi, the secretary-general of the Arab League, denounced Israel as a state founded on oppression and aggression. He told the conference that “Zionism is a form of racism hardly different in essence from the racism which Jews themselves have suffered.”

External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao of India read a message from India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on behalf of the Third World saying that peace and security would remain elusive as long as “the just and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to the establishment of an independent national state were unrecognized.”

Also during the opening session a message from Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat was read. It declared that the people of “Palestine will go on fighting in spite of the adversity and the problems it will have to face along the road” to victory over Israel and called on the international community not to be “paralyzed by the Zionist arrogance.” The international press correspondents found this statement harsh and provocative.


The conclusions of the conference are already known. They are contained in the drafts of the final resolution which is certain to be adopted because there is no opposition. These drafts call for total war against Israel by “all possible means, including armed struggle”; reject Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; call for a new Middle East conference with the full participation of the PLO; and urge that the right of Palestinians to an independent state be recognized.

The conference has been sharply criticized by the Swiss press. The consensus of the media was that “the drastic security measures, the barbed wire which encircles the United Nations building transforming it into a military garrison with trenches, tanks and troops only reflect the nature of the conference and the risks of holding it.” Some Swiss papers have referred to the conference as “a useless show” and “a political non-event.” One journalist wrote that the conference was like “a cow without milk.”

The United States, Canada and Israel are boycotting the conference. Most of the other Western nations are keeping a low profile, represented, if at all, by observers and low-level diplomats. The Arabs have made clear their disappointment with this, especially as the heads of their delegations are ministers and vice ministers. The Swiss sent an unknown young diplomat to represent the country and the Arabs are taking this as a slap in the face.

The PLO is represented only by supporters of Arafat. All other factions presently at war with each other in Lebanon have expressed rancor at being left out and the internal PLO war may erupt in some form at the conference.

The only ones who will gain from this 10-day meeting will be the Arabs and Arafat’s faction along with the Soviet Union which will exploit the gathering in order to bolster its flagging position in the Middle East by appearing to be the only non-Arab nation fully supporting the Arab cause against Israel. Thus, close to $6 million will have been squandered by the time the conference ends to reaffirm what Soffer called a “policy of intransigence and refusal.”

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