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Behind the Headlines: Eban Says PLO is Mellowing, but the Time is Not Yet Ripe

Like the Labor Party he has served for his entire political career, Abba Eban has greeted the Palestine Liberation Organization’s latest hints of moderation with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism.

But during a week when PLO leader Yasir Arafat was scheduled to meet with members of the 12-nation European Parliament, the veteran diplomat and Knesset member had to wonder: would European leaders tread that same careful path?

Or would they take indications that the PLO may be ready to recognize Israel as reason enough for supporting a Palestinian declaration of independence?

Unsure, Eban made cautionary stops on behalf of his party colleague, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, earlier this month in Rome, Brussels and Madrid. He plans further diplomatic meetings in Paris and Bonn after he concludes his current working visit to the United States.

“I wanted to say to the Europeans that we should all note with some degree of satisfaction that there seems to be a growth of rational consciousness (within the PLO), but we shouldn’t pluck the tree before it is ripe,” Eban said during an interview last week at his Manhattan hotel suite.

“I offered a proposal of caution, saying they should be sanguine to some degree, but shouldn’t go overboard in recognizing unilateral proclamations or telling the Palestinians that they are fine fellows and have done enough.

“They haven’t done enough,” he said.

“Enough” would be a decisive, unambiguous message from Arafat that the PLO is ready to recognize Israel and to renounce its terrorist tactics of the past 20 years, he said.

‘OPEN DOOR OF REPENTANCE’

In short, Eban was suggesting to the Europeans an approach that he hopes Israeli voters will take to the polling booths Nov. 1.

He would like them to see Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the rival Likud bloc as an obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He would like them to see Labor as the party that, in Eban’s ironic phrase, “leaves open the door of repentance” to the Palestinians, and, less directly, the PLO.

Although Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has said he doubts the PLO can play a constructive role in the peace process, he has hinted at ways the organization can at least change its rhetoric to increase its credibility in Israel and the rest of the world.

“Rhetoric does have its importance,” Eban said of the PLO’s guarded overtures. “You can’t have it both ways. When we hear virulent Palestinian rhetoric, we say that’s very significant. You can’t turn around then and say rhetoric is unimportant when it is moderate rhetoric.

“Some of my countrymen say it is just words. Then perhaps (the Palestinians’) previous stupid utterances are just words as well.”

Eban, who chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, acknowledged that the PLO under Arafat still seems to lack the courage to issue an unequivocal declaration of peace. “The PLO must stop hankering after organizational unity. If in 1947 through 1949 we decided not to do anything until all the Jews agreed with one another, we never would have had a state.

“But PLO moderates don’t want to break up the facade of unity, and use very ambiguous language,” he said.

POLITICAL DEADLOCK IN ISRAEL

Yet Israel is politically deadlocked as well, Eban pointed out — and at a time when he sees real movement in the Israeli consciousness.

The Knesset member quoted polls that indicate a growing willingness on the part of Israelis to include a contrite PLO in negotiations on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The public recognizes that maintaining the status quo in the territories is untenable, and that Israel is seen by Europeans and others as sacrificing its image as a democracy with strict juridical standards, he said.

Eban said he sees 1989 as a watershed year in the Middle East, but not if Shamir captures the November elections.

Reflecting on the possibility of a victory for the Likud bloc, Eban said “I’m not taking that terrible thing into account.”

Nor is he comforted with an often cited parallel between Shamir and fellow Likudnik Menachem Begin, the former prime minister, who achieved peace with Egypt despite his party’s hard-line policies.

The United States also faces a pivotal election in November, but Eban believes a similar mission will befall either a Bush or Dukakis administration.

“The U.S. should put a higher priority on yielding agreements between the PLO and Israel,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen. In that case, we should accept Talleyrand’s advice that we ‘cooperate with the inevitable.’ “

Eban prefers the word “activism” over “pressure” in describing the U.S. role. He cited Secretary of State George Shultz’s initiative this year as a positive, although tardy, example of the activism he supports.

‘NO RESPECT’ FOR SILENCE

The veteran Laborite said American Jews should support an active U.S. role in brokering a Middle East peace, and abandon what he called “paralyzed silence” on the topic of Israel’s future.

“I have no respect for that. If you care about a cause you can’t be indifferent. Silence is an indication of apathy, not solicitude,” he said.

The former ambassador said he planned to spend a few weeks in the United States lecturing and writing. But Eban, who for the first time was not included high enough on Labor’s election list to be considered for a seat in the Knesset, denied that he is settling into the quiet life of the elder statesman.

He cited polls and newspaper editorials indicating that he remains a popular and viable political figure in Israel and said that he “has no mandate to abandon politics.”

Instead, he will serve Labor by engaging in high-level diplomacy like his European initiative.

“If my party wins, I don’t expect to be idle,” he said. “Not only is there no element of rejection, but the paradox is that I’ve been reading the kind of appreciative remarks that one normally never reads when one’s alive.”

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