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PLO's history of terrorism is barrier to peace talks

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By Andrew L. Fish

(Editor's note: Andrew Fish spent three weeks in Israel on a trip for college newspaper editors sponsored by the World Zionist Organization. The following is the second in a series of three reports.)

For Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, it was a golden opportunity. He was chairing a conference on airline security, and a press conference announcing the event was held a little more than a week after the bombing of Pan American Flight 103. As far as Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned, the bombing and the United States decision to begin a dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Organization could not be seen as isolated incidents.

"You cannot say you are fighting terrorism while talking to the terrorist," Netanyahu asserted. "By having these kinds of talks you're saying that terrorism pays."

While Netanyahu did not say that the Palestine Liberation Organization was responsible for the Pan Am bombing, he was quick to point out that the organization was known to have the technology used in the attack. Also, "the PLO is both the pioneer and practitioner of aerial hijacking." It was the first to hijack an aircraft, and to carry out a gun and grenade attack on an airplane.

Clearly, Netanyahu, a member of the right-wing Likud bloc and former ambassador to the United Nations, was working to undo the effects of the Palestinian National Council's resolution and Yasser Arafat's later statements which renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to exist. "The political benefit that the PLO has reaped in recent weeks has encouraged terror the world over," the minister lamented.

Even if Arafat meant the words he uttered in Vienna, Netanyahu asserted that there would always be someone to "out-Arafat Arafat." He noted that terrorist incursions along the Lebanese border had continued, even after the PNC resolution. While some had been attributed to factions at odds with Arafat's Fatah organization, Netanyahu believed the PLO was "the master of creating its own splinter groups" so leaders could deny responsibility for attacks.

The complicated network of terrorism was like a hydra, Netanyahu said. "You do not fight a hydra by shaking one head. Terrorism should be smashed."

Recognition of the PLO

Israel's refusal to speak with or recognize the PLO is one of the major barriers to peace in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Some, like Netanyahu, believe that speaking with the organization would legitimize terrorism, and doubt whether the PNC and Arafat can be trusted to keep their word.

"If Arafat says he's condemning terrorism, we don't take that at face value," said Chaim Yehoyada of the Foreign Ministry's Center for Political Research and Planning. "If he agrees to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, we don't take that at face value."

"Americans look for magic words," Yehoyada said. But in the Middle East "words are not respected," so the US move was premature.

"The Middle East is an area where double-talk is the standard, not the exception," said Israeli President Chaim Herzog. He charged that PLO uses "the flexibility of the Arabic language ... to say one thing and mean another." Given this, "the wisest approach is to point to the activities." This has been the approach the Israelis have taken; Herzog cited Arafat's alleged threat against the mayor of Bethlehem, as well as the Lebanese incursions, as evidence that the PLO has violated its pledge to shun terrorism.

[Such efforts seems to be having an effect. On Wednesday the United States formally notified the PLO of its "serious concern' over the PLO's clash with Israel in southern Lebanon. The State Department was also reported to be upset about Arafat's threat to shoot anyone who proposed an end to the intifada.]

"From our point of view to negotiate with the PLO is a question of existence," Yehoyada said. He believed that since there were "so many families in Israel destroyed by terrorist activities," it would be impossible to talk with the organization.

Given the Israelis refusal to speak with the PLO, it seems impossible to bring an end to the uprising in the occupied territories. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alon Liel suggested two possibilities -- elections on the West Bank or an international conference with a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, but he believed that both were unlikely, given the current Israeli government. "We have to try to come up with initiatives to break the deadlock," he admitted.

Liel noted that Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin has talked with Palestinian leaders in the territories. "The question is who are the leaders [of the Palestinian people]."

Palestinian newspaper editor Hanna Siniora said the question was ridiculous. A poll conducted for his newspaper found that 93 percent of Arabs in the territories supported the PLO, with 71 percent backing Arafat's Fatah organization.

Liel suggested that a leadership elected without PLO involvement could be an acceptable negotiating partner, even though it is "quite clear that elections would yield PLO supporters." Liel believe such a scenario would even benefit the PLO. "Arafat must sacrifice publicity, but he could gain people he actually controls." Now that the United States was speaking with the PLO, it could pressure Arafat to "stay out" of the elections, Liel believed. But Liel was not even sure this idea could get support in the government.

Herzog was less optimistic. He charged that the main purpose of the PLO was to prevent internal leadership from forming. "I don't see negotiations, period, in the near future."

Search for reciprocation

Siniora, who Foreign Ministry officials characterized as a Fatah supporter, said, "If we make an agreement we will keep it." But he hastened to add that such an agreement "must be made with an organization." He said that, for example, as an individual he certainly had no authority to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. Through the PNC resolutions, which "have to stand on their value," the Palestinians showed their willingness to live in peace with Israel. "What we are waiting for is ... reciprocation" from the Israelis.

Siniora said that the PLO splinter groups still engaged in terrorism are the "expression of the secrets services of Syria and Libya," and not the Palestinians. But "we have to understand that there is something called resistance." He said that former Prime Minister Menacham Begin and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could have also been called terrorists at one time. In any event, "violence can only be ended when we start talking to each other."

Israel's reluctance to negotiate with the PLO can also be attributed to a reluctance to give up the occupied territories. One argument is nationalistic -- at a rally protesting the United States dialogue with the PLO a speaker declared, "We have no territories; we only have a homeland."

This statement, relying on Biblical claims to the land, is rejected by Morris Zilka, director general of the Department of Information of the World Zionist Organization. "Israelis love land," Zilka declared, "but there are people [living] there." "In the Bible Iraq is part of the Jewish land. I'm from there, and I would like it," he joked. It is just not reasonable to force people off their land.

He pointed out that there was plenty of room for expansion within Israel -- "the Negev is empty, the Galilee unsettled." Sixty percent of the problem in the territories would be solved when Israeli settlement in the territories stopped, and "we are coming close to that."

Zilka acknowledged that many people found the notion of a state of Palestine in the territories unacceptable. "If we are allergic to Palestine, let's call it a cucumber or watermelon," he proposed. "But this watermelon will be created at some time."

Also, some argue that a Palestinian state would endanger Israeli security. "Our fears are justified," Liel stressed. "Israel has the right to secure borders."

David Kreiselman of the government press office took our group to a hill in the West Bank where one could see clear to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea. Tanks could roll right down the hill and capture the country, he said. He rhetorically asked what would Israel would do if enemy tanks, from Palestine or another state, appeared on the hill one day.

Kreiselman believed any talk of establishing a Palestinian state with any Israeli security presence was "political masturbation," as no Arab would agree to it. Hence, the security concerns would always be present.

But Siniora dismissed such worries. "Israel can rely on its military strength," he said. "Israel is the regional military power. How come Israel is asking security from us?"

The nature of a Palestinian state

The security issue depends largely on the nature of a Palestinian state. Questions such as whether the state would be independent or in a confederation with Israel or Jordan, whether it would be demilitarized, whether it would still have an Israeli security presence, and whether it would be a secular or Islamic government would all have to be answered before the danger could be assessed.

But regardless of the nature of the state, many of the Palestinians outside the territories would not choose to live there. One who would stay in Israel is Antoine Shaheen, an Israeli Arab from the Arab city of Nazareth. Shaheen, a Roman Catholic who is current the city's minister of tourism and is planning a race for the city council or mayor, said that "99 percent of Israeli Arabs" would stay in the country.

Israeli Arabs have been loyal to the country through five wars, he noted. In Israel they have political and religious freedoms. Now when there is a problem with the government, Israeli Arabs can complain and also have the power to vote. On the other hand, a Palestinian state would likely be an Islamic republic where such freedoms would not exist, Shaheen believed. He also noted that the PLO itself was not democratically-elected organization.

Conditions have been good enough for the number of Arabs living in Israel has doubled during its 40-year history. Also, Shaheen believed that the Arab and Jewish communities in his area had "good relations."

"I wouldn't call myself pro-Israeli, but I'm a moderate man," he said.

Arabs in Israel feel for their brothers in the territories "on a human level, but not necessarily on a political level." Shaheen believed the territories would eventually have an interim period of autonomy, followed by a confederation with Jordan.

Peace is economic necessity

Siniora admitted that "attitudes have to change on both sides" for there to be a lasting peace. But he believed that "the superpowers cannot afford conflict all the time," and said "we have no option but to live together."

Zilka was the most optimistic on the prospects for peace. "The main thing in the world today is the economy." Economic warfare has replaced military warfare as the main offensive force of a government, he believed.

In 1992 there will be a united European Economic Community which will further challenge other nations, Zilka noted. Fifty years ago the countries of Europe were at war.

"I think this region will move to peace, we have no other choice," Zilka said. "I think the Arabs realize they can't benefit from war."

"Forty years is not enough time to build a state," Zilka said. Now "the cup is half full, not half empty." The region is "moving toward peace now more than ever."