Background Report Illusion and Reality in the Mideast

The Reagan Administration appears to be pinning its hopes for reviving President Reagan’s moribund Middle East peace initiative on the slim expectation that Yasir Arafat has been so chastened by his defeat in Lebanon that he is ready to give his blessings to the entry of King Hussein of Jordan into the peace talks.

It was this possibility that was given by at least one senior State Department official as one of the reasons for United States support of the unhampered departure of Arafat and some 4,000 of his Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists from Tripoli last week despite Israel’s strong protest that it was disgraceful that the PLO was leaving under the aegis of the United Nations flag.

This hope was also seen in the declaration by the State Department that the meeting in Cairo last week between Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was an “encouraging development.”

The meeting shocked the Israelis who said it contradicted the Camp David agreements. Ambassador Meir Rosenne went to the State Department late last Thursday to express the Israeli view and called Mubarak’s meetings with Arafat “encouragement to terrorism.”

REAGAN SEES PROGRESS

But Reagan, in an interview with reporters from the four major world news agencies, made it clear that he sees the meeting as perhaps leading to Arafat’s endorsement of Hussein’s participation in the peace talks on behalf of the Palestinians.

“I think that what President Mubarak is doing is talking to him (Arafat) about returning to where he was earlier, making contact with King Hussein and getting those peace negotiations, our peace proposal, under way again,” Reagan said in the interview which took place last Friday.

Reagan added that he no longer believes that a settlement in Lebanon has to be reached before the peace negotiations can continue. “I think enough progress has been made there that we can go forward with the peace movement,” he said.

The President disagreed with the Israelis that the Mubarak-Arafat meeting was a violation of Camp David. “I can understand their (the Israelis) feelings in view of the recent (bus bombing) tragedy in Jerusalem and the group taking credit for that claims to be a PLO group and all,” he said.

“But at the same time, I think as they look at this a little more clearly, they will see that Mubark, based on the experience of Egypt and its willingness to go forward for peace, is simply trying to persuade others to change their thinking.”

FRAGILITY OF THE NEW AGREEMENT

The differences between the U.S. and Israel were seen by some to reveal the fragility of the new agreement for close strategic cooperation between the two countries, announced during Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s recent visit to Washington.

But State Department spokesman John Hughes pointed out several times last week that it was not unusual for close friends and allies to disagree. Shamir made the same point during his speech to the National Press Club here.

But not mentioned was that the U.S. disagreement with Israel over Arafat’s departure from Tripoli and then his meeting with Mubarak helped the U.S. in its effort, to convince the Arabs that despite the new agreement with Israel the U.S. also sought closer relations with “moderate” Arab states.

MEANING OF MUBARAK-ARAFAT MEETING STILL UNCLEAR

Meanwhile, it is still unclear what last week’s meeting in Cairo meant. For Arafat, with a large part of the PLO coming under the domination of Syria, it was logical to seek support from Egypt, the most important Arab state. At this stage Arafat is also obviously willing to meet with any Arab leader who will receive him in an attempt to bolster his sinking prestige.

However, even some of his most loyal supporters in the PLO were outraged by the meeting. The PLO along with the other members of the Arab League broke relations with Egypt six years ago after the signing of the Camp David accords. The revolt against Arafat by PLO groups in Lebanon is directed against him giving the Jordanian monarch approval to represent the Palestinians in the negotiations with Israel, Egypt and the U.S.

Mubarak’s motives are more worrisome. Israel is already concerned about what it calls the cold peace with Egypt and it had earlier expressed the fear that Mubarak is seeking to move back toward the rejectionist Arab camp.

At the same time, the Egyptians have always urged that the PLO be included in the negotiations. Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, during his visit to Washington last week, said that Arafat continues to be the most popular Palestinian leader.

When Reagan was asked if he agreed with this assessment, he replied “Well this is what we need to find out. I can’t believe the radical group under the influence of the Syrians — I can’t believe that the millions of Palestinians are going to choose that leadership.”

U.S. STILL WON’T DEAL WITH THE PLO

The State Department made clear last week that the U.S. still sticks to its position that it will not deal with the PLO until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist and accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. But it was obviously signalling to Arafat that the time was ripe for him to do so.

The State Department also made clear that it knows Israel will never sit down with members of the PLO. Under the Reagan initiative, Jordan is urged to join the peace talks with Palestinians in its delegation, especially from the West Bank and Gaza, who are not members of the PLO. Hussein has maintained he first needs the approval of the PLO and of Arab states.

But if Arafat could not give his approval last April when he was still the undisputed leader of the terrorist group, can he do it now when he has all he can do to stay in control of the few loyalists left? It seems to many that the hope in Washington for Arafat’s metamorphosis from a terrorist to a responsible leader is based more on wishful thinking and self-delusion in Washington than on reality in the Middle East.

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