U.S.-Israel relations, recently improved, were strained anew this week over the Reagan Administration’s optimistic view of the apparent reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Egypt.
Israel regards the meeting in Cairo last week between President Hosni Mubarak and PLO chief Yasir Arafat as a blow to peace prospects in the region. The Administration called it “an encouraging development” and President Reagan, in a year-end interview with wire services over the weekend, said “We are optimistic about this because … Mubarak is the head of state of the one country in the Arab world that has gone forward and has a peace treaty with Israel.”
But according to Premier Yitzhak Shamir, the Americans are making a grave mistake if they believe the Mubarak-Arafat meeting would help advance Reagan’s Middle East peace initiative of September 1, 1982. Shamir sent Reagan a cable yesterday warning that American support for the Egypt-PLO rapprochement would only dissuade moderate Palestinians from coming to the negotiating table.
Shimon Peres, chairman of the opposition Labor Party, disagreed with Shamir’s assessment and warned that Israel must strive for a “common strategy” with the U.S. to achieve peace. But the Shamir government’s attitude drew strong support from American Jewish leaders who flooded the White House with statements of protest over the weekend.
ANGER IN JERUSALEM, OPTIMISM IN WASHINGTON
The sharp differences between Jerusalem and Washington emerged late last week after Arafat, ousted from Lebanon by Syrian-backed PLO dissidents, was warmly embraced in Cairo by Mubarak. That created bitter feelings in Israel where the Foreign Ministry labeled “the reception accorded … in Cairo to the head of the murderous PLO… a severe blow to the peace process in the Middle East.”
On the same day, however, State Department spokesman John Hughes noted that the meeting in Cairo took place in the context of “Egypt’s adherence to the Camp David accords and its outspoken support” for Reagan’s peace initiative.
Reagan, at his White House interview Friday, cited the Mubarak-Arafat meeting as a reason for optimism over his peace plan which was rejected by both Israel and the Palestinians when it was enunciated more than a year ago. “I’m always a little leary about saying a breakthrough, ” Reagan told the wire service reporters.
“But I do think this: We are optimistic about this because… Mubarak is the head of state of the one country in the Arab world that has gone forward and has a peace treaty with Israel … Obviously, a part of the process depends on a fair and just settlement of the Palestinian question … and Arafat… in the past was the one who has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation.
“Now I think that what President Mubarak is doing is talking to him about returning to … peace negotiations (with Israel), our peace proposal,” the President said. He added that he could understand Israel’s discomfiture with the Cairo meeting but he thought the Israelis need to “look at this a little more clearly. They will see that Mubarak, based on the experience of Egypt and its willingness to go forward for peace, is simply trying to persuade others to change their thinking,” Reagan said, referring apparently to Arafat.
Shamir expressed the opposite view strongly Friday to visiting Sen. Christopher Dodd (D. Conn.). He maintained that the Mubarak-Arafat reconciliation would only encourage Palestinian extremists at a time when moderates might have come forward in the wake of Arafat’s disaster in Lebanon. Shamir offered the same argument in an interview published in Yediot Achronot today. He made it clear that Israel still opposes Reagan’s peace plan and that he so informed Reagan at their White House meetings last month.
However, according to Shamir, these differences would not hinder cooperation between Israel and the U.S. He said it was wrong to speak of tension between the two countries but, nevertheless, in further talks Israeli officials will do their utmost to persuade the Administration that Israel’s assessment of the Mubarak-Arafat meeting is the correct one.
APPARENT REVERSAL OF U.S. POLICY CITED
American Jewish leaders have already undertaken that task. In a telegram to Reagan last Friday, Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressed “shock and dismay at the apparent reversal” of U.S. policy toward Arafat.
“Betting on Arafat is a grim mistake,” Berman’s message said. He has failed the Palestinian Arabs. He will fail the White House. To believe that Arafat can be persuaded to follow the path of peaceful reconciliation is to doom the Middle East to continued strife, for only if new and indigenous Palestinian Arab leaders come forward with courage to negotiate with Israel under the terms of the Camp David accords can there be the possibility of peace in the Middle East.”
But such spokesmen, Berman added, “dare not and will not speak out as long as Arafat is supported in his claim to be the voice of Palestinian Arabs.”
Kenneth Bialkin, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said in a statement Friday that it was “wrong and counter productive ” for Mubarak to have met with the PLO chief and for the U.S. to have supported their meeting.
Charging that the Camp David agreements “are not being fully lived up to by Egypt which has kept its relations with Israel at the lowest level,” Bialkin claimed that “the U.S. has now further encouraged Egypt to abuse the treaty by welcoming the man who symbolizes everything in opposition to it.”
Howard Friedman, president of the American Jewish Committee, said that Mubarak’s “embrace of Arafat, while presumably intended to induce the PLO to join the peace process, puts the cart before the horse. Logic and human decency require that Arafat must first unequivocally renounce terrorism and agree to peaceful coexistence with Israel. Egypt, as the first and most important Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has served as an important example of the benefits of peace to those Arabs who persist in their hostility to Israel.
“It is all the more distressing then, that Egypt now appears to be sending the wrong signal by, in addition to its continued refusal to return its Ambassador to Israel, giving public expression of support for the PLO’s leader.”
‘A TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE’
Alleck Resnick, president of the Zionist Organization of America, sent a telegram to Reagan declaring that it is “a travesty of justice for any civilized nation to suggest a role for Arafat in the Mideast peace process when new non-violent and non-PLO Palestinian Arab leadership and King Hussein of Jordan should be asked to step forward.”
He added: “Mr. President, we must as well express our grave misgivings over U.S. expressions of support for the Arafat-Mubarak meeting as a harrowing contradiction of your stated concern to put an end to the scourge of terrorism currently threatening democratic forces around the world.”
PERES SUGGESTS ISRAEL’S AIM
Israeli opposition leader Peres told reporters in Jerusalem yesterday that while he “could not give the (Mubarak-Arafat) meeting my blessing, ” it did demonstrate that the Palestinians now know they can make no moves without Egypt, regardless of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Peres stressed that he does not regard the PLO or Arafat as partners in peace talks “yesterday, today or maybe even tomorrow. ” But Israel’s aim should be to coordinate its strategy on the Palestinian issue with the U.S., not with Egypt.
This, he said, should be Israel’s immediate goal now that there is a possibility that Reagan’s peace initiative may be revived.
“The burning issue today is not whether the U.S. will store its medical supplies here,” Peres said in a reference to the new U.S.-Israel cooperation agreement. “Rather, the central problem is the continuation of the peace process. And on this we have no common strategy with Washington,” he said.
ARAFAT PROMISES RADICAL CHANGES
Meanwhile, the official Egyptian news agency, Mena, reported today that Arafat, now in North Yemen, has promised radical changes in the Palestinian approach to the Middle East conflict.
“There will be new trends for Palestinian action, details of which will be announced as soon as possible,” the PLO chief was quoted as saying. He also charged that there was a conspiracy between Israel and unnamed Arab “parties” to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence favoring Israel.