Israel-PLO recognition could come in days D.C. peace talks now on sidelines

September 01, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, moving briskly to end decades of bitter hostility, are negotiating terms of mutual recognition that may be announced in a few days, officials close to the peace process said yesterday.

Their action, capping months of secret diplomacy with official Israeli acceptance of the PLO as the voice of Palestinians, could be followed by a resumption of the U.S. dialogue with the PLO, an organization once regarded as an unacceptable instrument of world terrorism, an administration official said.

The developments came as formal negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict resumed in Washington yesterday in an atmosphere of uncertainty, with participants struggling to adjust the formal, plodding peace process to the magnitude of the Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.

Israel and the PLO reached agreement last week on an autonomy framework for the Israeli-occupied territories that calls for the speedy installation of a Palestinian governing apparatus in Gaza and in the West Bank town of Jericho, with at least a partial withdrawal of Israeli troops.

Nabil Shaath, a top adviser to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, said here yesterday that direct Israeli-PLO talks, which are continuing in Oslo, Norway, could lead to recognition statements being issued in Jerusalem and at PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, within days. He declined to identify the negotiators involved.

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch, cautioned that for official Israeli recognition of the PLO to occur, the organization would have to explicitly renounce terrorism. Israel considers Mr. Arafat's previous renunciation of terrorism in 1988 to have been overridden by a subsequent terror attack on an Israeli beach by a PLO faction.

"The so-called renunciation of terrorism was followed by terrorist activities, which led to the destruction or suspension of the U.S.-PLO dialogue at the time," Mr. Rabinovitch said. "If we will JTC be looking at their renunciation of terrorism now, we would be looking at it in the context of an interim agreement between the Palestinians and us, and there is a world of difference here."

Sources familiar with the talks said mutual recognition could be followed by visits to Washington by senior Israeli and PLO officials to witness the signing of a declaration of principles in about two weeks.

Once Israel made its move, the stage would be set for the United States to follow with a resumption of the U.S.-PLO dialogue halted by President George Bush's administration in 1989.

"We're not going to be ahead [of the Israelis], but it's also important we not be behind," a senior official said last night.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher opened the door to possible resumption of the dialogue yesterday. "There's been no change in our policy with respect to the PLO at the present time," he told reporters. But he added: "On the other hand, this is a rapidly changing environment. We're following developments very closely."

U.S. position unchanged

But he made clear that the United States was not shifting in its opposition to a Palestinian state.

Official U.S.-PLO contact would be a key factor in enabling the United States once again to get a firm grip on the whole negotiating apparatus after months in which the most important discussions went on secretly in Norway without direct U.S. involvement.

U.S. officials say that Mr. Christopher, who warmly endorsed the Israeli-Palestinian deal for the first time yesterday as a "conceptual breakthrough," is eager to provide it with the underpinning of international support and to use it to stimulate progress in talks between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

"I do think it is desirable to have it made part of the peace process here under the sponsorship of the United States and Russia," Mr. Christopher said, noting that he had spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and that "we are working together to try and take those next steps."

Russia is a co-sponsor of the current Middle East peace process.

Mr. Christopher's statement reflected a grappling with new realities that permeated the first day of resumed negotiations yesterday.

To a great extent, this also reflected uncertainty in the Middle East itself, where the leaders of Jordan and Syria met yesterday to discuss the Israeli-PLO deal before delivering an opinion.

Palestinians split

In a clear sign of division in the Palestinian camp, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, chief of the official Palestinian negotiating team, said his group was not yet ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel, Reuters reported last night. Mr. Abdel-Shafi has been publicly critical of Mr. Arafat.

"This agreement that is the subject of discussion, we are in the process of studying this carefully. I can't say that we shall be in a position to sign this," Mr. Abdel-Shafi told reporters after yesterday's talks in Washington.

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