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News Analysis: Decision to Open Talks with PLO Could Strain U.s.-israeli Ties

The Reagan administration’s decision to open talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization could leave a legacy of renewed friction between the United States and Israel for George Bush, when he assumes the presidency Jan. 20.

A period of tension may be ahead between the United States and Israel, especially if the talks with the PLO, being undertaken by Robert Pelletreau, the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia, are seen as going well.

At the same time, the decision frees the Bush White House of a commitment to Israel that has been upheld by the last three administrations, since it was first made in 1975 by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Secretary of State George Shultz, at a news conference Wednesday night, made clear that he will not himself talk with PLO leader Yasir Arafat or other PLO officials. He said the Arabic-speaking Pelletreau is “the only authorized channel of communications” with the PLO. For anyone else to engage in the dialogue would be a decision of the next administration.

Shultz conceded that Israel may never negotiate with the PLO.

“It’s totally for Israel to make its own decisions about what it wants to do, and there’s nothing to be inferred judgmentally about what they should do,” Shultz said.

However, Shultz and President Reagan stressed that the decision did not lessen U.S. support for Israel and was aimed at moving the peace process forward.

“We view this development as one more step toward the beginning of direct negotiations between the parties, which alone can lead to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” Reagan said in a statement issued by the White House Wednesday night.

“The United States’ special commitment to Israel’s security and well-being remains unshakable,” Reagan said. “Indeed, a major reason for our entry into this dialogue is to help Israel achieve the recognition and security it deserves.”

Shultz reiterated that the United States does not accept the decision at the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers last month to declare an independent Palestinian state.

“The status of the West Bank and Gaza cannot be determined by unilateral acts of either side, but only through a process of negotiations,” he said.

‘PERMANENT’ END TO TERRORISM

Shultz and Reagan also stressed that the United States wants to be sure that the PLO’s renunciation of terrorism is fulfilled not just in words, but in deeds.

The secretary said terrorism will be the first item on the agenda for Pelletreau when he speaks with the PLO. “And we’ll make it clear that our position about the importance of the renunciation of terrorism is central,” he said.

The Reagan statement also said that the United States expects the PLO to live up to the statements made by Arafat at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday. “In particular, it must demonstrate that its renunciation of terrorism is pervasive and permanent,” Reagan said.

Reagan said Thursday that if the PLO does not live up to its word, “we certainly (will) break off communications.”

Arafat said Wednesday that he has gone as far as he can. “Enough is enough,” he said three times. “All remaining matters should be discussed around the table and within the international conference.”

This leaves the Middle East peace process about where it was when the agreement between Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan bogged down in 1987. The issues now remain the same as then: whether to convene an international conference and who should represent the Palestinians.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater reiterated the U.S. position that it would accept an international conference, but only if it leads to direct negotiations and is not a substitute for it Bush has supported this position.

But if the U.S.-PLO dialogue makes any progress, the Bush administration could end up pressing Israel to accept the PLO in negotiations. However, Fitzwater, who will be Bush’s press secretary, said “we would not try to dictate” Israeli talks with the PLO.

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