United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim flew here from Amman today to give the Israelis his impressions, after talking to leaders in five Arab countries and to solicit Israel's view on the prospects for peace.
His overall impression, Waldheim told the Israelis, was that the Arabs were ready to come to terms with Israel and that even Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, whom he met in Damascus, was ready to accept the existence of the Jewish state in exchange for some sort of Palestinian state on the West bank and in Gaza.
The Israeli reaction to Waldheim's report was that, although they were glad to hear his impressions, there was very little new in what he told them.The difficulty is that the Israelis are so opposed to the PLO that it might be difficult for them to recognize a true change of heart if it came. But even friends of the PLO recognized that PLO statements of recent weeks and months have been ambiguous and contradictory.
As long ago as two years, the PLO was saying that it might accept any territory from which the Israelis withdrew but the implication was that such a mini-state would be only the first step in regaining the rest of Palestine, i.e., Israel.
More recently, Arafat has told interviews that the would accept a West Bank-Gaza state but could not abandon the old dream of some day regaining lost lands in Israel. It was not clear how much of the "old dream" remained in what Arafat more recently told Waldheim.
The debacle of Pluraslistic Lebanon has enormously strengthened Israel's argument that the Palestinian idea of replacing the Jewish state with a "democratic secular state" would never work and the PLO has been slowly backing away from that slogan. But the Palestinians speak with too many voices to be clearly understood.
Israelis take the position that hints of moderation and of de facto recognition of Israel are not good enough and as long as the PLO covenant calls for the liquidation of the Jewish state the PLO cannot be a negotiation partner at Geneva or anywhere else. The PLO, the Israelis insist, must first change their covenant.
The Israelis are totally opposed to a third and possibly irredentist state between Israel and Jordan. They take the position that a Palestinian natianal identity can be realized only in the context fo a settlement with Jordan.
Israel is trying to encourage a nonradical Palestinian identity in the occupied territory and in Jordan that they hope will replace the PLO. The Israelis believe that the Arab states would also like to further weaken the PLO and if Israel sticks to its guns, some sort of settlement can be reached without the PLO.
There are strong indications, however, that Israel underestimated the remaining strength of the PLO in the occupied territory and abroad.
There are Israeli doves and moderate Palestinians who say that only by giving the Palestinians a national identity - clearly separate, at least in the beginning, from Jordan - can irredentist feelings be overcome. Nonetheless, the Israeli government and perhaps the majority of Israeli opinion is against any recognition of the PLO.
The Palestinian National Council, after many delays, is scheduled to meet next month and Israelis will be looking with interest to see whether the organization has been humbled enough to change their convenant calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. It is not at all certain how the Israelis would react even if they did.