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Arafat Letter on Right of Return Gets Mixed Review from Israelis

Signs of new flexibility from Yasir Arafat, conveyed in a letter to a Jewish peace group here Friday, have received a mixed reaction among Israelis.

In the letter, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman expresses a willingness to negotiate on the right of return for Palestinians and says that Soviet Jews have a right to immigrate to Israel, but not to uproot Palestinians.

The letter also appears to endorse proposed preliminary talks between Israel and a Palestinian delegation that would exclude the PLO.

The Israeli political center and left find the letter conciliatory and believe it contains a promise of further moderation on the part of the PLO. But the right wing has been dismissive, and reaction from Palestinians in the administered territories has been sparse.

The six-page letter, transmitted by a facsimile machine, was the first Arafat has addressed to a meeting of Jewish leadership in Israel. It was sent to the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, which was holding its annual board of trustees meeting in Jerusalem.

The center, composed largely of dovish Israelis and American Jews, arranged the controversial meeting between Arafat and five American Jews in Stockholm in December 1988.

Arafat wrote that the PLO supports the rights of all people, including Soviet Jews, “to free movement and travel” and “to choose the country in which they wish to reside.”

But he noted that “this right, like all others, has its limitations. It ends where other people’s rights begin. The other people in this case are the Palestinians. They too have a right to live in their homeland and resist all attempts to uproot them.”

A THREAT OF VIOLENCE?

That is followed by a sentence which appears to threaten violence if the Israeli government forces Soviet Jews to settle in the administered territories.

“Jewish emigrants have the right to choose their destinations without being forcibly directed to any other place,” said Arafat. “Any attempt to deny them that right could provoke dangerous explosions and deal a fatal blow to peace efforts.”

Arafat acknowledged that one of the central Israeli concerns is the insistence of the PLO on the right of Palestinians to return from abroad to live in their ancestral homes in Israel.

“The right of return is sacred,” Arafat wrote. “However, we are ready to discuss the conditions of its application on the basis of (U.N.) Resolution 194.”

According to Hebrew University Professor Moshe Maoz, a Middle East scholar, this is definitely a change in the PLO’s position.

Until now, the PLO has insisted on the “collective right” of the Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel. Now the reference is to U.N. Resolution 194 of 1949, which grants the Palestinians the right to return “on an individual basis” or alternatively to receive financial compensation, Maoz pointed out.

Arafat’s letter moved closer to the Egyptian position on Jewish immigration, which supports the Jewish right to immigrate but opposes Israel’s right to settle new immigrants in the administered territories.

DOVES AND HAWKS AT ODDS

The letter heartened such Knesset doves as Michael Bar-Zohar of the Labor Party and Yair Tsaban of Mapam, the United Workers Party of Israel.

Bar-Zohar, who represents the activist element in Labor, claimed the persistent refusal to negotiate with the PLO had softened Arafat’s stand. He suggested that the only remaining obstacle between Israel and the PLO is the Palestinian demand for an independent state.

Tsaban predictably urged Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to reconsider his refusal to talk to the PLO, in light of Arafat’s letter.

Uzi Baram, former secretary-general of the Labor Party, suggested the letter was another signal of change inside the PLO.

But Uzi Landau of Likud said there was no substance to Arafat’s letter, because the Palestinian National Covenant upholding the right of return remains unchanged.

Professor Yuval Ne’eman, head of the far right-wing party Tehiya, said that by “expressing readiness” to discuss the right of return, Arafat was placing an issue on the national agenda that was not there in the first place. So far, no party in Israel has related to that issue, he said.

Palestinian leaders in the West Bank said that apart from being a “first,” the letter reflected “known PLO views.”

Said Can’an, a Nablus businessman close to the PLO, said Arafat’s comments on the right of return reflected a “flexible attitude but did not amount to renouncement of that sacred right.

“Those Palestinians who do not wish to go back to Israel can be compensated for the loss of their property and live in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said.

BACKS ISRAELI ELECTIONS

In his letter to the Israeli peace group, Arafat reiterated the PLO view that the only way to a viable peace lies in an international conference, because “the fears of the Israelis and Palestinians can only be quelled by international guarantees.”

But he said that in the interest of creating contacts that could lead to such a conference, “the PLO once more leaned over backward and approved the idea of a dialogue between representatives of the Israeli government and representatives of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and the diaspora.”

The PLO approved this, Arafat said, “on the understanding that this dialogue would be part of a peace process aimed at a comprehensive and final settlement, and that its agenda would cover all the conceptual ingredients of that process, including the elections” proposed by Israel.

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