WASHINGTON (Aug. 20)
Middle East specialists in the State Department are reported to be discouraged by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s continuing intransigence on the peace process and recent hard-line statements issued by Al Fatah, its largest and least extreme faction.
One knowledgeable Capitol Hill observer who has been in touch with Bush administration officials said that they are so dismayed by the PLO’s latest stance that they may even begin examining the possibility of suspending the 8-month-old U.S.-PLO dialogue.
The officials are said to be upset about the tough rhetoric adopted by Al Fatah at a meeting in Tunisia earlier this month. But they are even more concerned with the PLO’s refusal to move toward acceptance of the Israeli peace plan.
The plan, which calls for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to choose Palestinians who could enter peace talks with Israel, was discussed at the most recent round of U.S.-PLO talks in Tunis on Aug. 14.
“We didn’t make as much progress as we had hoped” at the meeting, a State Department official acknowledged Friday. But the official denied that there has been any significant growth of frustration toward the PLO in recent weeks.
A second administration official said the United States is “a little bit disappointed” both with the Fatah rhetoric and with the fact that the PLO has “still not agreed to permit a dialogue between authoritative West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and the Israeli government.”
POLICY RE-EVALUATION UNDER WAY
The United States has “not gotten to the point to consider options” such as suspending the dialogue, said the Capitol Hill observer, who insisted on anonymity. He added that U.S. officials decided early this year not to establish specific guidelines that would lead to suspension or termination of the dialogue.
But while suspension has never been “formally or seriously considered,” the possibility “could resurrect itself, depending on what the circumstances were,” the source said.
Termination of the dialogue with the PLO is not as likely as temporary suspension, the source said. The purpose of suspending the talks would be to pressure the PLO to rethink its position toward the Israeli elections plan.
“The trouble is, Arafat now thinks we need this dialogue more than he does,” one State Department official was quoted as saying recently.
The State Department’s interbureau team on the peace process reportedly is re-evaluating U.S. policy toward the PLO and is expected to present Secretary of State James Baker with a range of options after Labor Day.
The team is an informal group headed by Dennis Ross, director of the department’s policy-planning staff, and includes John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs; Richard Haas and David Welch of the National Security Council’s Middle East staff; and State Department aides Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller.
Within that group, there is said to be a “carrot” school, which wants to meet some of the PLO’s demands for greater political recognition, and a “stick” school, which for the first time has raised the question of suspension.
PLO SEEKING CONCESSIONS
The PLO has been seeking various concessions from the United States during the talks in Tunisia, including a more specific definition of Palestinian political rights.
When the Camp David accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the United States used the phrase “legitimate rights of the Palestinians.”
Former Secretary of State George Shultz introduced the phrase “Palestinian political rights.” Now, the PLO wants the United States to use the phrase “Palestinian national rights,” which might be less objectionable to the United States than another phrase, “Palestinian self-determination.”
Either phrase would likely meet strong resistance from Israel and its supporters in the United States, because they imply a Palestinian right to statehood.
PLO leader Yasir Arafat is also seeking greater U.S. pressure to force Israel into negotiating with the PLO, to convene an international peace conference and to change the modalities of Israel’s election plan in the territories.
Most American Jewish groups have refrained so far from calling on the Bush administration to end its dialogue with the PLO, though many have raised doubts about its usefulness.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has called on the administration to reassess the dialogue, in light of recent PLO actions.
The conference’s executive director, Malcolm Hoenlein, predicted there would be “close consultations” among its constituent groups on this issue to avoid tactical differences that occurred last month when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee pushed for legislation to severely restrict U.S. contacts with the PLO.
Some Jewish groups, most notably the American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, opposed strict constraints, fearing they might lead to an end to the U.S.-PLO dialogue. That could eliminate any possibility of PLO endorsement of the Israeli election plan.