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News Analysis: Terrorist Attack May Have Pushed U.s., PLO into Intractable Positions

June 5, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization may have been propelled by events into a situation both would have preferred to avoid.

The 16-month-old U.S.-PLO dialogue hangs by a thread in the aftermath of the aborted attack by heavily armed seaborne terrorists on two crowded Israeli beaches May 30.

Should the dialogue be broken off, the stalled peace process would be no closer to resuming, and extremists in the PLO could be seen as victorious.

The only casualties of the beach attack were suffered by the Palestinian invaders. But the potential for carnage among innocent Israeli civilians was immense, which contributed to the shocking nature of the event.

The United States needed to make an appropriate response. Inasmuch as its dialogue with the PLO was conditioned on Yasir Arafat’s widely publicized November 1988 renunciation of terrorism, the United States hoped the PLO leader would deliver an unambiguous condemnation of the beach assault.

But Arafat’s statement on the attack, carried out by the Palestine Liberation Front, a PLO constituent, had a halfhearted ring in Washington. He refused, moreover, to oust PLF leader Mohammed (Abul) Abbas from the 15-member PLO Executive Committee.

Arafat resorted to the technicality that Abbas, notorious for masterminding the Achille Lauro hijack five years ago, was “democratically” elected to the PLO’s executive body by the 400-member Palestine National Council and could only be removed by the so-called parliament in exile.

That response left the United States with little room to maneuver.


In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said at a news briefing last Friday night that he was not satisfied by PLO explanations of the attack.

“We are not going to be satisfied until we know everything that we need to know,” Baker said without elaborating.

The first fallout from the beach attack was the U.S. veto on May 31 of a U.N. Security Council resolution to send a fact-finding delegation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Analysts here and in Washington predicted the United States would go further. But the U.S. State Department’s position at the moment is that it is still investigating the circumstances of the terrorist attack.

Israel has opposed the U.S.-PLO dialogue from its inception and claims Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism was a fraud. The government here continues to urge the United States to end the PLO dialogue, and the clamor has been taken up by virtually every American Jewish leader and organization.

Particularly significant were comments made by Menachem Rosensaft, president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, one of five American Jews who met Arafat in Stockholm in December 1988 to help draft his statement renouncing terrorism.

Rosensaft said last week that the PLO chief had broken his pledge.

“As one who had a small part in starting this dialogue, I see this as violating his statement that the PLO has renounced terrorism, and I believe the United States should reassess its dialogue with the PLO,” he was quoted as saying.

On the PLO side, Arafat’s deputy, Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyyad, declared over the weekend that the PLO would shed no tears if the United States did break off the dialogue.

Arafat reacted to the American veto of the Security Council resolution by warning that violence in the region would only increase.


In Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders reacted to the veto by ending a nearly two-week hunger strike and deciding to boycott the American diplomatic representatives.

But despite the angry sparring, both sides may be seeking a way out of a dilemma.

From the American viewpoint, a chief benefit of the PLO dialogue was the knowledge that terrorist activities would be suspended as a condition for continuing the talks. Indeed, terrorist activities have diminished considerably in the past two years.

For the PLO, the effect of the dialogue was to endow it with the international legitimacy it needed. Indeed, the dialogue led the United States to try to persuade Israel to conduct its own preliminary dialogue with the Palestinians in Cairo.

Although both parties would have liked to continue the talks, they now find themselves clinging to positions that could lead to their suspension.

The United States insists that it cannot continue the dialogue if the Palestinians resume military operations against Israel.

The PLO leadership, on the other hand, is not strong enough politically or in practical terms to enforce a cease-fire on its most militant elements and their leaders.

Arafat seems unable or unwilling to accept the American demand to oust Abul Abbas. But by rejecting it, he risks much.

Suspension of the dialogue with the United States would mean a political victory for the more radical groups under the PLO umbrella, weakening the Arafat camp and his relatively moderate supporters.


Arafat, in fact, has little reason to be satisfied with recent political developments. The peace process is stalemated. His main political achievement, a working relationship with the United States, is coming apart, and even the intifada seems to be leading nowhere.

Moreover, in the eyes of the Palestinians, the continued flow of Jewish immigrants to Israel seems to upset whatever gains their uprising has achieved.

The threat posed by the recent upsurge of Jewish immigration was a chief item on the agenda of last week’s Arab summit meeting in Baghdad, convened at Arafat’s initiative.

The resolutions adopted at the summit played to Arafat’s fear that Israel is planning to dispossess Palestinians in the territories by settling Soviet Jews there.

But as was the case in the past, the Baghdad summit was unable to translate its concerns into action. Arafat walked away with little more than yet another resolution pledging Arab support for the Palestinians.

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