Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan said yesterday that Israel, in the upcoming resumption of peace talks with Egypt, "cannot deny" the position of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the search for a comprehensive Middle East settlement.
Dayan's comments, to an international conference of Jewish war veterans in Israel, contrasted sharply with official Israeli attitudes toward the PLO. The Beirut-based group, an umbrella organization comprising most Palestinian guerrilla forces, usually is depicted by Israel as a band of outlaw terrorists.
"It [the PLO] isn't just the terrorists or the terrorist organization. It's also the civilian part of it. That is to say, the Palestinian refugees," Dayan said, according to United Press International. "No one, and certainly we, don't think a final settlement of the conflict in the Middle East can be achieved without a settlement of the refugees."
The government-run Israeli radio interpreted Dayan's comments as a sign the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin might be considering a change in its longstanding refusal to negotiate with the PLO.
But Begin, addressing the Israeli parliament later, said Dayan did not mean to announce any change in policy "toward the murderous organization called the PLO."
"Our position, accepted by all of us, including the Foreign Ministry, is that the PLO is a murderous organization which wishes to destroy the state of Israel and to attack Jews wherever they may be," Begin said, according to Reuter.
Nevertheless, Dayan's statement attracted wide attention. Since he is foreign minister, Dayan's words from a public forum carry official weight even if they are not official policy. In addition, Dayan is regarded by American Middle East specialists as one of the more flexible members of the Begin government. Finally, he will head the Israeli delegation when peace talks with Egypt resume, scheduled for Feb. 21 at Camp David under the leadership of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
A U.S. official who closely monitors Middle East developments suggested Dayan could have been trying to sweeten the atmosphere for those talks. The comments, he said, could be interpreted as an attempt to balance negative fallout from leaks last week of long-term Israeli planning for the autonomy of Gaza and the West Bank envisioned in the Camp David accords.
The suggestions of a special Israeli committee, presented for consideration to Begin's Cabinet, outlined a form of autonomy in which the Israeli Army would retain control of the territories, captured in 1967, and in which authority granted to local Palestinian bodies would flow from the Israeli military.
This clearly is less than the autonomy sought by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and his chief negotiator at the planned resumption of talks, Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil. The PLO has rejected the whole idea of limited autonomy as foreseen in the Camp David accords, with PLO leader Yasser Arafat calling it a form of "slavery."
Hard-line members of Begin's Likud Party attacked Dayan's comments and said that because of them he should lose his assignment as Israel's chief negotiator at the peace talks. Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, told Reuter news agency that Dayan's remarks were "worth careful study."
A U.S. diplomat here suggested Dayan's "unique formulation" of what Israel should do about the PLO was more a reflection of his personal views than a new Israeli policy.
"I don't think the Israeli government would necessarily agree with what he said, nor would he make a claim that it does," he added.
The Dayan statements coincided with the arrival in Israel of Defense Secretary Harold Brown on the third stop of a Middle East tour comprising Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. His travels are being followed with close attention because of regional concerns over the turmoil in Iran.
"We have a common strategic interest in the stability and well being of the Middle East," Brown said in an arrival statement, according to Reuter. "The American commitment to Israel's security, resting as it does on moral and political grounds as well as on vital security interests, is a longstanding one, and I reaffirm that American commitment to Israel's security today."
Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman also referred to the Iranian revolt and said developments there "underscore the importance of bringing stability to the region," Reuter reported.
"This is the time for a somber assessment of the situation and for assured leadership, courage and intitative," he added. "You will find that Israel is ready to contribute to a partnership with the United States for the stability and prosperity of all peaceseeking forces in the region."