In announcing his decision to suspend the U.S.-PLO dialogue, the president has put the ball back in the PLO's court. He emphasized that he would be prepared to resume a dialogue quickly when and if the PLO not only disassociates itself from the Abul Abbas terrorist attempt of May 30 but condemns it and begins to take steps to discipline Abul Abbas. Early PLO action has therefore become a prerequisite for getting the peace process out of the deep freeze in which the May 30 episode and our subsequent suspension of the dialogue have placed it.
A number of congressmen, editors and other political observers urged the president to break off these talks. They asserted that if the president did not formally suspend the dialogue he would be perceived as soft on terrorism and thus prejudice any further U.S. efforts to encourage stability in the Middle East. The Israeli government has reacted quickly, praising the president's action. Yet his words contained no real comfort to Israeli hard-liners. He not only held out the prospect of a quick resumption of the dialogue but said he firmly supported U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principles inherent therein of exchanging "territory for peace" and providing for Israel's security as well as for Palestinian political rights.
Dogged determination in promotion of the peace process, including continuing the U.S. talks with the PLO, is now sorely needed. Our rage and frustration at the despicable hostage-takings, hijackings and assorted murders committed by various Middle Eastern terrorists groups are natural and understandable. The most difficult challenge is in determining how best to respond to all acts of terror. Cool heads are essential; exaggerated responses always prove counterproductive. In the Middle Eastern context, critics of the PLO and of the U.S.-PLO dialogue would have us believe that terrorism threatens the very existence of the State of Israel. This has never been the case. Israel's physical existence has been threatened by various combinations of armed Arab states during the past four decades, but not by terrorism per se. Breaking off our dialogue with the PLO, far from helping the peace process, may even produce an upsurge of the terrorist acts that causes us all so much agony.
Let us recall the events of December 1988, which led President Reagan to authorize the opening of the U.S.-PLO dialogue. Before Reagan would agree, Arafat had officially to accept three positions: Israel's right to exist, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and renunciation of terrorism. Arafat accepted all three on Dec. 14, 1988, and the dialogue began two days later. The PLO chairman has continued to state his support for these positions.
The United States and Israel had agreed in 1975 that America would neither recognize nor negotiate with the PLO until it accepted Israel's right to exist along with the two relevant Security Council resolutions. Some have since said that Arafat's acceptance of Israel's right to exist was merely rhetorical. If so, why did it take him 13 years to articulate this position? The answer is that, although for years Arafat deeply wanted a dialogue with the United States, he was able to meet our terms only after completion of the paralyzing slow formation of a new consensus within the Palestine National Council.
Acceptance of Israel's right to exist was a major psychological hurdle for Palestinians to overcome. It was also a major plus for the Middle East peace process. In recognizing and articulating the reality of Israel as a political entity in the region, the PLO as an organization moved out ahead of a number ofArab leaders. Some in the PLO have been criticizing Arafat ever since his December 1988 statement and would have him pull back from that position, claiming he has so far received nothing in return. His answer has been that he has achieved the beginnings of a dialogue with the United States.
Equally important for former president Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, was the PLO's explicit renunciation of terrorism. Arafat accepted that condition but never addressed the unilateral U.S. interpretation of what renunciation of terrorism might actually involve. It was Washington that maintained that if an act of terrorism occurred that could be traced to the PLO, then the PLO should publicly condemn the action and at least expel the offender from its ranks.
At no point in our dialogue with the PLO did we challenge Arafat to accept or reject that specific interpretation. As Assistant Secretary State John Kelly testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, the administration did not want to "hand over to any individual or minority group within the PLO the sole capability of bringing about an end to the dialogue." Arafat now says that he had no foreknowledge of the attempted attack and that as chairman he lacks the authority to expel Abul Abbas or any other elected member from the PLO's Executive Council. (Unfortunately, he is probably correct in maintaining that he lacks this direct authority.) Moreover, PLO spokesmen have recently revived their complaint that Washington has not been active enough in promoting the peace process -- as if that is what keeps the PLO from addressing the Abul Abbas problem.
The fact remains that the PLO cannot evade responsibility for the actions of leaders such as Abul Abbas. It has not done enough to educate its members about the danger he and other adventurers pose to the organization and to the peace process itself. Arafat must therefore take a far more decisive public position on this issue than he has yet done. He must persuade his followers -- and many among them remain unconvinced -- that any PLO element which engages in terrorist activities reinforces the arguments of those who would reject the PLO forever as a legitimate party to the peace process.
Some in Israel will continue to argue that if the PLO is firmly isolated -- and indeed disregarded by the United States -- then some day, somehow, "good" Palestinians will find a way to step forward and negotiate an interim autonomy arrangement with Israel. This is wishful thinking and a prescription for indefinite delays in any movement toward peace.
These critics also argue that the Bush administration neglected to pay sufficient attention to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's package of last year, which included a call for negotiations with the Arab states. The reality is that we are now at a point when no Arab state, other than Egypt, is willing to negotiate with Israel. Arab leaders have stepped back from being ready to engage, are consistently backing the PLO's claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and are waiting to see how the Israeli government is prepared to engage with the Palestinians. But Israel's official position is that it will not negotiate with the PLO. Israel therefore stands to benefit ultimately from a continuing U.S.-PLO dialogue that can explore how to launch Palestianian-Israel talks as a first stage in the process leading to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement.
The problem of who will represent the Palestinians in such talks has not disappeared with the suspension of the dialogue. No ad hoc group of Palestinians will present itself at the negotiating table as an alternative to the PLO. Therefore, the sooner the PLO acts to satisfy Bush's condition for a resumption of the dialogue the better the chance of resuming the peace process itself. All of this assumes, of course, that the Israeli government will one day soon be willing to move away from its bunker mentality and begin to parley in earnest.
The writer, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council or Foreign Relations, served as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989.