News Analysis: Palestinians’ New PLO Status Ruffles Few Feathers in Israel

A year and a half ago it would have been enough to bring down a government.

The idea that Israeli negotiators would sit side by side with Palestinian negotiators who were officially linked with the Palestine Liberation Organization was unheard of.

When Palestinian delegate Saeb Erekat announced in the fall of 1991 that he was actually representing the PLO, Israel refused to accept him back at the negotiating table until he had found some excuse to retract the statement.

At that time, the more hard-line Likud government was in power, and it also refused to recognize Faisal Husseini as an official delegate.

The reason was that he was a resident of Jerusalem, and Israel had insisted it would only negotiate with representatives of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Negotiating with Husseini, the Likud government argued, would imply that Jerusalem was part of the administered territories and therefore up for negotiation.

But Husseini is now recognized by Israel’s current Labor government as the chief Palestinian negotiator, if not the titular head of the Palestinian delegation.

And Labor ministers hardly blinked last weekend when Husseini and two of his colleagues — Erekat and Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi — were named official members of the PLO steering committee monitoring the peace talks.

Predictably, the opposition lashed out at this development, with Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud arguing that Husseini should be banned from the peace talks because he was a confirmed PLO agent.

Labor politicians chose simply to ignore the announcement about the appointments from the Tunis-based PLO leadership.

Economic Development Minister Shimon Shetreet, a hawk who opposes any contacts with the PLO, declared that since there was no official PLO communique on the subject, the appointments were simply a technical move that ought not be taken too seriously.

The government could also continue to insist that it had not changed policy. It could still say it was negotiating directly only with “indigenous Palestinians,” rather than PLO leaders in exile.

Far from derailing the peace talks, the PLO move has left all parties — Israeli and Palestinian pretty well-satisfied.

The Palestinians have temporarily pushed aside their internal differences; the Likud can once again cite its favorite verse, “We told you so”; and Labor can go on fantasizing that the PLO does not exist at all and that a peace settlement is near.

Meanwhile, everybody knows the truth: that Israel is indeed negotiating with representatives of the PLO and has been doing so ever since the peace talks began.

Even Likud leaders recognized long ago that it is better to deal with the more moderate Palestinian forces represented by the PLO than the rejectionists represented by the Islamic fundamentalists and radical left-wing Palestinian factions.

This may be the main reason why the controversy over the PLO move has disappeared from the Israeli national spotlight almost as quickly as it appeared.

Tuesday’s newspapers, for example, hardly devoted a word to the issue that had captured banner headlines only two days earlier.

This is perhaps because Israel has been absorbed this week with a controversy surrounding top officials of the Shas party that could very well mushroom into a full-scale coalition crisis and topple the Labor government.

In short, it appeared this week that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was getting more of a headache from his own Cabinet ministers than from Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

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