JERUSALEM (Aug. 10)
For a while — just a brief while — it seemed this week that the internal crisis in the Palestinian leadership might stall the Middle East peace process.
But eventually both Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and his frustrated emissaries from the administered territories understood that any major changes in the composition of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks might hurt the cause.
Three leading members of the Palestinian delegation — Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat — initially went to Tunis on Sunday with the threat of handing in their resignations. But after meetings Monday, they were still in office.
The internal crisis was triggered by complaints from the Palestinian negotiators that Arafat was taking an independent initiative in the peace process. By not consulting them, they argued, the PLO leader was making them mere “puppets” in the peace process.
They were particularly irritated by Arafat’s response to a U.S. drafted declaration of principles setting guidelines for the peace process. Despite a July 3 decision by the PLO executive committee not to respond to the American proposals, Arafat went ahead with his response — and it was a moderate one at that.
Sources in the territories said Tuesday that the Palestinian delegates have told Arafat that if he again tries to circumvent them, by sending independent messages to the Americans and the Israelis, they will not hesitate to resign for good.
PLO officials in Tunis were summoned Tuesday to discuss further the delicate relationship between the PLO leadership in Tunis and the local Palestinian negotiators in the territories.
By midweek, it was too early to tell who really came out stronger from the confrontation. But judging from statements by PLO officials such as Nabil Sha’ath, the crisis will spur forces pushing for direct Israeli negotiations with the PLO.
The Palestinian negotiators are expected to return to the negotiating table with tougher stands — which the Israelis will not tolerate — including calls for immediate negotiations over the status of Jerusalem.
Any continued stalemate in the negotiations with the Palestinians will be accompanied by strong hints that only Yasir Arafat can deliver the goods Israel expects: a gradual handing -over of authority in the administered territories, coupled with an agreement to leave delicate issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and the territories for a later date.
Key members of the Labor Party — including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and Knesset member Ephraim Sneh — hinted this week that the government may have to change course in its treatment of the PLO.
Peres told a delegation of United Jewish Appeal leaders here Tuesday that Israeli Cabinet members have the right to meet with PLO officials.
GOOD NEWS, BUT NO BREAKTHROUGH
But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin still strongly objects to negotiating directly with the PLO leadership in Tunis.
His only alternative with the Palestinians, however, may be a stalemate.
Last week, following the weeklong shelling of southern Lebanon, it seemed as if Israeli policy-makers were ready for such a stalemate in the talks with the Palestinians, assuming business could be struck in the negotiations with Syria.
This possibility was strengthened by the role Syria played in achieving the cease-fire and by the two visits of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Damascus.
The good news from Syria was the message that President Hafez Assad was indeed ready for a full peace agreement with Israel.
No less important were the indications from Damascus that Syria would not make an agreement with the Palestinians a precondition to any Syrian peace agreement with Israel.
Syria, it is believed, will be satisfied by a show of at least some initial progress with the Palestinians before it reaches any agreements with Israel.
But it remains an open question what the Syrian price for such an agreement will be. Syria reportedly continues to insist on total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But the pace of the demanded withdrawal and the nature of the ensuing security arrangements are still open to negotiation.
A week after Christopher’s visit to the Middle East, however, the long-awaited breakthrough is not yet here.
Indeed, amid all the optimistic reports that circulated during his Middle East shuttle, the best Christopher could say at the end of his travels was that the peace process had been “salvaged.”