Strains in the Palestinian Camp Give New Push to Talks with PLO

The serious strains that have emerged this week in relations between Palestinian leaders in the administered territories and Palestine Liberation Organization officials in Tunis have given new momentum to those forces here advocating direct talks between Israel and the PLO.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been among the most vocal of top Israeli officials on this possibility, indicating over the weekend that Israel would talk with whomever was the most moderate among the Palestinians.

When asked Monday specifically about direct talks with the PLO, he did not discount the possibility, answering, “Everything in its due course.”

Echoing Peres’ views, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin hinted at the possible need to negotiate directly with the PLO under certain circumstances.

Similar views were expressed Monday by Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, who is considered close to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

However, Rabin himself is known to oppose strongly any inclusion of the PLO in the peace process. He was quoted as telling a group of American Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday that the Israeli government will continue to negotiate only with Palestinian representatives from the territories.

“We are not negotiating with the PLO, even if we are not preventing contact with them,” he told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In separate remarks Monday, the prime minister said that the tensions that emerged this week between three senior members of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks and the PLO leadership in Tunis are “a Palestinian problem.”

“It is not our business what is the composition of the Palestinians delegation, as long as it is composed of residents of the territories,” he said, making clear his intention to continue excluding PLO involvement.

RESIGNATIONS WITHDRAWN?

The three members of the delegation — Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat — were reported Monday to have submitted their resignations to the PLO leadership in Tunis and then withdrawn them. Other reports said they had merely offered to resign but had not actually done so.

According to some reports, the dispute focused on a decision last week by PLO leader Yasir Arafat that the Palestinians should offer certain concessions to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a U.S.-drafted declaration of principles for the peace talks.

The Palestinian delegation had considered the American draft too pro-Israel, and for the past month had staunchly refused to present any Palestinian-scripted amendments to it.

Indeed, Arafat’s decision to provide a written response to the American draft conflicted with a PLO executive committee decision reached July 3 clearly stating that the Palestinians would not respond to the U.S. proposals.

Foreign Minister Peres said Monday that despite the crisis within the Palestinian ranks, substantial progress had been made in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Speaking to reporters during a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, Peres said the crisis occurred because negotiations were getting closer to final decisions.

The closer the negotiating process comes to completion, he said, the more differences there will be.

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc was less hopeful about the developments in the Palestinian camp.

He warned that the continuous weakening of the PLO and its representatives in the administered territories would jeopardize the peace process and would create a political vacuum that would be filled by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the territories.

Sarid himself has been the subject of reports that he met in late July with Nabil Sha’ath, a close adviser to Arafat. He refused comment on the subject in several interviews over the weekend, but the report was confirmed Sunday by Mahmoud Abbas, a senior PLO official.

Rabin confirmed in his conference call with the American Jewish leaders that he had been informed in advance of the Sarid meeting. But he said that the environment minister was acting on his own initiative and did not represent the Israeli government at the meeting.

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