France Ready Again to Talk to Plo, Believing There is No Alternative

France is ready once again to receive Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat as the representative of the Palestinian people, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said Monday.

For the time being, there is no other organization that represents the Palestinians, Dumas said in an interview with the daily Le Monde.

In Washington, visiting French Premier Michel Rocard agreed. While the PLO has lost credibility in the West because of its support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, “the Palestinian people has no other representative,” Rocard said at a news conference after meeting with President Bush.

The French position appears to be at odds with that of the rest of the European Community, which confirmed earlier this month that the E.C. was avoiding any contact with the PLO.

Dumas did not reveal any plans for Arafat to come to France. The PLO leader paid an official visit to France two years ago and was received by President Francois Mitterrand in what was interpreted by many as a European recognition of the PLO.

The French Jewish community energetically protested at the time with many accusing Mitterrand of breaking with his long pro-Israel position.

Dumas, who is a close confidant of Mitterrand, said that while Arafat’s popularity has decreased in the West, his popularity has risen elsewhere and “certainly has not dropped in the occupied territories.”

Arab countries would fail, as they have in the past, if they tried to set up an organization to compete with the PLO, Dumas predicted. He warned that if Arafat were replaced as the head of the PLO, “it would be by a far more extremist personality,” perhaps moving the PLO in the direction of the Islamic fundamentalists.

NO DIFFERENCES WITH BUSH

The Bush administration has for the present rejected Arafat and the PLO as a partner in the peace process and is again looking for alternative Palestinians with which to talk.

In Washington, at a news conference at the French Chancery, Rocard said he found no differences with President Bush during their discussions of the Middle East.

This includes France’s earlier call for an international peace conference, which the Bush administration has ruled out for now, Rocard said.

A solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict requires a guarantee of security for Israel and a national identity for the Palestinians, Rocard said. He said that both France and the United States believe this should be brought about through direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Rocard said France believes the best way to do this is through an international conference. But if negotiations come about via some other method, France will not be opposed, he said.

Asked if he was disappointed that Israeli leaders had rejected the idea of territorial concessions, Rocard said, “One must never despair.”

The French leader said the Israeli government must make its own decisions, and until it does, he expects it to “retain its bargaining positions.”

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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