Israeli government officials said today they regard Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat's recent disavowal of PLO intent to liquidate the Jewish state as damaging to the Middle East peace process because it provides Western European leaders with an opening to step up their diplomatic contact with the Palestinians and undercut the Camp David negotiations.
Apparently troubled by Arafat's reported turnabout, the Israeli government has gone to some lengths to counter the disavowal, starting with a nonattributable briefing for foreign journalists Friday by a Foreign Ministry intelligence analyst. Today the ministry's second-highest ranking official sought to underscore Israel's skepticism in an interview with The Washington Post.
David Kimche, director general of the Foreign Ministry, said the PLO's Fatah guerrilla wing has reaffirmed its commitment to an open armed struggle against Israel. Despite Arafat's recent statements, the PLO has rejected his plan to pursue a "soft tactical line," Kimche said.
Kimche cited unspecified Western intelligence sources in disclosing that the Fatah executive committee voted 12 to 4 at a June meeting to reject Arafat's strategy of furthering the PLO's political gains in Europe by continuing a policy of diplomatic moderation instead of guerrila warfare.
This was after a Fatah congress met in Damascus in May and -- according to widespread diplomatic and press reports -- adopted a resolution to "liquidate the Zionist entity politically, economically, militarily, culturally and ideologically."
In an interview published in the International Herald Tribune last Wednesday, Arafat denied that the Fatah congress had adopted that resolution, which he said was contained in a draft put forward by a splinter faction but never approved. He accused Israel of carrying out an internatinal campaign to misrepresent the PLO, and said he had left the Damascus reports unchallenged only because he had been preoccupied by other issues.
As for Arafat's claim that other PLO officials had disavowed the Damascus resolution, Kimche said, "I had the whole Arab section [of the Foreign Ministry] on it, and we haven't found a single denial except in the Herald Tribune interview."
On the contrary, Kimche said, since the Damascus congress numerous high-level PLO officials have confirmed the adoption of the resolution and have reaffirmed Fatah's determination to wrest control of Palestine.
On June 16, Kimche said, the British Broadcasting Corp. monitoring service recorded Arafat saying, "We cannot regain Palesinte or return to Jerusalem by political means. We can only do this by means of the gun."
Also on June 16, he said, Ibrahim Sus, the top PLO delegate in Paris, told Europe One radio that "the PLO fully accepts the resolution of the Fatah Damascus conference," including the reported resolution to liquidate Israel.
Kimche disputed Arafat's claim in the Herald tribune that the draft text urging liquidation had been leaked to a Beirut newspaper, Al Liwa, which published it even though it had never formally been adopted. He said Western media with correspondents in Damascus at the time -- including the BBC, The Guardian and the Financial Times of London -- reported the adoption of the draft.
But the unreported Fatah Executive committee meeting in early June. Kimche said, was more revealing than any public statement because it "represented a deed and not rhetoric."
According to Israel's intelligence sources, Kimche said, the opposition to Arafat's soft tactical approach was led by top PLO official Salah Khalaf and reflected disunity, not only in the PLO umbrella organization, but within Fatah. Arafat heads both Fatah and the PLO.
Kimche, before becoming Foreign Ministry director general two weeks ago, served for more than 20 years in Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad. He said open conflicts in Fatah between Arafat and aides such as Khalaf have become more common-place in recent months because of the disputes about tactics.
He said Arafat has shown signs of losing control over Fatah, the comparatively moderate wing of the PLO, and cited denials by Fatah that it was involved in last month's terrorist hand grenade attack on Jewish youths in Antwerp and an assasination attempt on exiled Iranian leader Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris -- even though persons arrested in the attacks said they were from Fatah.
This is against a backdrop of what Kimche termed a growing challenge to Arafat and Fatah by extremist elements of the PLO, including George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Iraqui-linked Arab Liberation Front and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, among others.
"Each of these groups is becoming allied with various Arab states, such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. They are tools of the inter-Arab conflict, and Arafat ends up speaking less for the PLO and more only for Fatah," Kimche said.
He added, "Even if we went to Arafat and said, 'Let's make a deal,' how do we know who he really represents?"
Kimche said he regards Arafat's "double talk" as dangerous to Israel, not because the European leaders will be misled, but because it gives them an opening to resume their diplomatic initiative with the PLO.
"They are cynical enough to see what is behind Arafat's statement, but they can appreciate the opportunity it provides to let them continue their policy of appeasement to the Arab oil states," Kimche said.