The opening of an official American dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) can break a long-standing deadlock if American policy toward the PLO is properly aligned with existing policy toward the two major U.S. allies in the conflict, Israel and Jordan. If not, it offers real potential for disaster.
The remarkable point is how much initiative lies in American hands. Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians are reluctant to take steps on their own; and all three parties look to Washington for approval.
As concerns Israel, the first American priority is clear. The PLO has to be pressured to take steps to win the trust of the Jews. The declarations in Geneva were vintage Arafat, full of clauses and subclauses. His grudging fulfillment of American conditions does not suffice for Israelis. The PLO now has to take steps to convince Israelis-not Americans-that it is sincere. Paradoxically, the best way to test his motives may be to assume that Arafat means what he says, then see if it holds up.
The PLO needs to be told exactly what it must do to keep the dialogue going. Foremost, these conditions should include the ending of all violence against Israelis (including the stones on the West Bank and Gaza) and an appeal to Arab states to do the same.
It should be made clear that failure to take these steps means an ending of dialogue with Washington. Failure to live up to the new standards ends the new relationship, at least temporarily.
This tough approach should work-it is, after all, how the U.S. government got Arafat this far along. Washington's repetition of the same three conditions year in, year out-the PLO must accept Israel's right to exist, renounce terrorism, and offer peace to Israel in exchange for Israeli-controlled land-finally paid off when Arafat uttered the magic words in Geneva. This experience vindicates the no-nonsense approach laid down in 1975 by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Now that a dialogue has begun, a similar procedure should be initiated without delay.
Then there is the matter of relations with Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan opposes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state no less than do the Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Despite last summer's renunciation of the West Bank, the king remains critically interested in that region; further, he rightly fears that a PLO state would aspire to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy. And Jordanian interests remains critical to Israel, for, as Yitzhak Rabin declared a few days ago, "peace cannot be attained on our eastern border without Jordan."
The worst mistake would be for the U.S. government on its own to try to bring a PLO state into existence. This would mean doing battle with not one but two American allies. It would mean sacrificing the interests of important allies for those of a Soviet-backed adversary. Further, it cannot work. Decades of experience shows conclusively that Israelis take chances only when assured of American support. Brow-beating them by the State Department helps no one. Rather than squeeze Israel and Jordan into the PLO's agenda, the PLO should be fit into their legitimate interests.
What can the U.S. government do of a constructive nature? The best idea is to encourage a new attempt at confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians. Although such an effort has been tried many times in the past, always failing, circumstances have changed. In fact, Arafat has formally adopted a stance toward Israel which closely parallels King Hussein's. He has also said that he seeks a "confederal" relationship with Amman. This allows for real opportunities to American diplomats; they need to think about ways to get Arafat working in tandem with Hussein. And doing so has the advantage of testing Arafat's sincerity a second way.
From the PLO perspective, American recognition at first blush appears to be unblemished good news. But it also creates major pitfalls for the organization.
For one, it may well spur rulers of the rejectionist states-Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, and Hafiz al-Assad of Syria-to try sabotage. All three repudiate even the notion of a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Israel, and they are furious with Arafat. They may try to assassinate Arafat. The Syrians have already prepared the way for this eventuality by having the Palestinian groups based in Damascus call Arafat's statement "treason." If assassination succeeds, they are rid of a compromiser; if it fails, they have put him on notice, and the effect may be to scare him off the present course.
For another, there is every reason to believe that Palestinian terrorism against Israelis will continue, in part because the PLO's Salah Khalaf has threatened as much, in part because Arafat does not control all Palestinian groups. This points to what will no doubt be a delicate and controversial process of evaluation in Washington; on the occasion of each violent incident, American officials will have to judge Arafat's complicity. Whatever their decisions turn out to be, these will certainly be at the center of new controversy.
In short, American debate over the PLO has not ended; it has merely shifted to a different level.