Behind the Headlines: PLO Has Managed to Sow Discord and Confusion in Israeli Politics

The Palestine Liberation Organization, adroitly playing Israeli politics, has succeeded in heating up the Labor-Likud election battle, embarrassing Premier Yitzhak Shamir and sowing general confusion among the public.

Bassam Abu-Sharif, one of PLO chief Yasir Arafat’s senior aides, has let drop hints in recent weeks that the PLO is willing to negotiate directly with Israel. His timing in the context of Israeli politics could not have been better.

He told the French news agency Agence France-Presse in Baghdad on Sunday that the PLO was prepared to consider an interim settlement in the administered territories and, in fact, had already traded offers and counteroffers with Shamir, using Romania as intermediary.

Both Labor and Likud rose to the PLO’s bait. Each party is trying to prove to the electorate that it detests the PLO the most and will never negotiate with it.

When Energy Minister Moshe Shahal, a powerful figure in the Labor Party, challenged Shamir on Abu-Sharif’s claim, the premier responded by calling Shahal a liar.

This sort of discourse is expected to continue up to election day, Nov. 1, reflecting poorly on both major parties. The only likely winner, at least in the short term, is the PLO.

Instead of challenging each other, Labor and Likud could, more rationally, challenge the PLO to find out if it is genuinely interested in a political settlement or is engaged in a propaganda ploy aimed at portraying Israel as the obstacle to peace.

FEAR OF BEING ‘SOFT’ ON PLO

But no Israeli minister would risk asking this question little more than 100 days from the elections, lest he or she be branded as “soft” on the PLO.

Nor would either of the two major blocs risk pondering a politically positive response to Abu-Sharif’s ostensible peace feelers.

Not that the thought hasn’t crossed. Dovish elements in Labor have indicated in past that no peace settlement is possible without an agreement with the Palestinians.

Ezer Weizman, leader of the Labor Alignment’s Yahad faction, has stated explicitly in the past that he would opt for negotiations with the PLO if it met certain conditions: renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

But even the usually outspoken Weizman, acting campaign manager of the Labor Party, has been silent this week.

Likud too, despite its hard-line positions and tough talk, is no stranger to the idea of some arrangement with the Palestinians.

Moshe Amirav, a member of Herut and of the Likud Central Committee, was engaged last year in secret dialogues with influential Palestinians, among them Feisal Husseini, whom the Israeli authorities identify with the PLO.

The talks were about a document Amirav prepared granting the Palestinians autonomy along the lines of the 1978 Camp David accords. They were leaked to the media, with the result that Amirav was ousted from his party and Husseini was placed under administrative detention for nine months.

A WINK OF THE EVE?

Shamir and his aides insist it is official policy to have no contacts whatsoever with the PLO. Shamir declared Monday that there will be no negotiations, “not now and not in the future.”

But one can almost discern a wink in the eye of some Likud activists at such proclamations.

After all, former Premier Menachem Begin was as hard-line as Shamir, yet he entered into the Camp David agreements and gave up the largest territory Israel had ever conquered, the entire Sinai, which reverted to Egyptian rule in 1982.

The peace treaty with Egypt certainly must be credited to Likud, and some party activists are busily spreading the notion that only the nationalistic Likud can reach a settlement with the Palestinians.

Amirav insisted Monday that before Shamir’s visit to Romania last September, the premier’s aides asked to see Amirav’s proposals to the Palestinians.

Shahal backed Amirav’s story, saying that Shamir had proposed the Amirav plan or something close to it to President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, who conveyed it to the Palestinians.

Shamir called Shahal a “filthy liar.” His former aide, Tzahi Hanegbi, denied that the premier ever asked to look at Amirav’s document.

Shahal apparently decided the time was ripe to attack Likud on its right flank.

When asked why he should be disturbed if Shamir did, in fact, raise with Ceausescu the possibility of negotiating with the PLO, the Laborite replied that Shamir was defying established government policy to have nothing to do with the PLO.

He added that Shamir did this only to foil Labor’s attempts to negotiate with Jordan for a Palestinian settlement.

The Shamir-Shahal exchange faded by the middle of the week. There were no answers and the public is more confused than ever over whom to believe.

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