JERUSALEM (Aug. 29)
Israel may formally recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as part of a preliminary agreement on interim Palestinian self-rule in the administered territories.
In turn, the PLO would formally renounce terrorism as a means of accomplishing its goals and rescind articles in the Palestine National Covenant that call for the destruction of Israel.
These elements are being proposed as part of an agreement that would give limited self-rule to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.
The proposed agreement, apparently hammered out during the last few weeks in a series of secret meetings between high-level Israeli and PLO officials, was expected to be discussed Monday at a special meeting of the Cabinet convened by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
If the proposed agreement is approved, it would herald a historic turning point in the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, which have dragged on for 22 months and been repeatedly sidetracked by an array of procedural rather than substantive issues.
Many of the details of the agreement must still be worked out, and this was expected to be the focus of what could be difficult negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations to the bilateral peace talks, which were scheduled to resume in Washington on Tuesday.
But in an indication that serious progress toward reaching an agreement had already been made, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres flew to California for a surprise meeting last Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Peres himself apparently played a key personal role in working out the understanding with the Palestinians. Although the foreign minister denies it, he is reported by four Israeli newspapers to have met with a senior PLO official in Stockholm on Aug. 20, during a trip to Scandinavia.
Several other highly placed members of the Israeli government have met recently with PLO representatives, despite Jerusalem’s official policy that it will not negotiate with the Tunis-based organization.
LIKUD BLASTS THE PLAN
Peres was believed to have explained to Christopher the nature of the direct contacts between Israel and the PLO, since U.S. policy still bars direct contacts with the PLO.
The United States was believed to have given its full blessing to the latest developments.
Here in Israel, while many hailed the plan for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho as a historic breakthrough, the proposal also drew some strong negative reactions, including warnings of civil war.
Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud party, blasted the plan and vowed to bring down the government over the issue.
He charged the Israeli government was throwing a lifeline to the PLO, which he said is bankrupt and remains committed to Israel’s destruction.
Likud favors holding an election before going forward with a Gaza-Jericho First proposal.
The head of the Likud caucus in the Knesset, Moshe Katsav, said the proposal paves the way for a Palestinian state.
“We are afraid this policy has only one significance: to put the cornerstone of the Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria,” he told Israel Television, using the West Bank’s biblical name.
He added: “And we believe that in a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria there is only one meaning: the destruction of Israel.”
Settlers in the territories have roundly condemned the proposal and warned that deep divisions over it could erupt into a full-blown campaign of civil disobedience.
Within the government, Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, who heads the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians in Washington, was reported by Israel Television to be threatening to resign. Rubinstein is a holdover from the Likud government.
RABIN HAS CONCERNS, TOO
Prime Minister Rabin, too, has been cautious about the proposed agreement, many of whose specific terms must still be worked out.
Among other things, he is concerned that the Palestinians will seek to have a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and Jericho, a move he is unprepared to make.
Rabin also wants to keep control of the strategically important Allenby Bridge, a crossing point into Jordan that is located near Jericho.
Another point of concern is the status of Jewish settlers in Gaza, whose safety must be guaranteed.
The prime minister was expected to discuss these reservations, as well as the proposal to grant full recognition to the PLO, at Monday’s special Cabinet session.
The proposal for mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO was the subject of comments by several PLO officials.
PLO leader Yasir Arafat reportedly told the PLO executive committee in Tunis that he would insist that any agreement on Palestinian self-rule must be signed by Israel and the PLO. Without mutual recognition, he said, no agreement would be possible.
Yasir Abed Rabbo, head of the information department of the PLO, said Sunday that the organization was interested in turning “a new leaf” in its relations with Israel.
Without mentioning specifically the idea of mutual recognition, he said that the PLO would support any measure that would serve that cause.
Asked if direct contacts between the PLO and Israel should be expected within the next few days, Abed Rabbo said: “We are on the verge of an historic change in the Middle East.”
He did not rule out a possible meeting between Rabin and Arafat.
Such sweeping statements of optimism were also sounded in Israel, where there was talk that an Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles could be signed as early as this week, in which case Peres might show up in Washington.