A stalemate looms over peace talks in the Middle East, the more so as Ronald Reagan puts into effect the regional priorities he shares with Menachem Begin: anti-Soviet strategic concerns first, political issues second. But at the same time an idea for a break in the stalemate is being put to the PLO by, among others, some of its friends.
The idea is that the Palestine Liberation Organization should "do a Sadat"--make the kind of bold unequivocal gesture of acceptance of Israel that would melt Israeli rigidities and, not incidentally, end all traces of the PLO's pariahdom in Washington and elsewhere in the West.
Here is the logic: at this point, the sense of Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is strong. Just to avoid more muscle play across the Lebanese border will be something of a triumph. Reagan seems likely to confine most of his squeezing of Israel to strategic items like AWACS and matters bearing on American ties with friendly Arab states. Begin himself has a fresh mandate for a tough policy on the Palestinians. There is not the slightest reason to believe that the Palestinians, if they stay on course, will be any more successful than in the past in translating their various strivings into a homeland.
Ask Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, about "doing a Sadat" and he might reply this way:
The Palestine National Council has repeatedly resolved since 1974 that the PLO would accept a state in any part of Palestine liberated from or evacuated by the Israelis. That means a de facto recognition of Israel in the other part-- living the way the two German states lived for 25 years: with trade and the like but without formal recognition. But the PLO will not-- politically it cannot--state this any more openly until it gets something in return. The Israelis offer nothing. They reject simultaneous mutual recognition. They keep confiscating West Bank land and building more settlements. Who, after all, is holding the territories? The Palestinians do not hold Israel's fate in their hands. Israel holds their fate in its.
This is the moderate Palestinian line. The other, competing radical line is marked by the PLO's regular threats to "eradicate the Zionist entity" and by the deeds of terror that give life to those threats.
I happen to think Israel errs by not testing the moderates and giving them ammunition against the radicals. This is the way to see if they can be drawn into the substantial further concessions--open contact and formal recognition, for instance--that must be at the heart of any real peace.
But the question I am asking here is whether from a Palestinian viewpoint it makes sense simply to curse Begin--his ever more open purpose is to annex the West Bank and Gaza and to encourage their Arab inhabitants either to depart or to take Jordanian citizenship--or to pretend that a more liberal successor government will surely countenance a PLO state. If the answer is that cursing and waiting will not do, then you have arrived at the door that Anwar Sadat opened--the door he invented-- in going to Jerusalem in 1977.
One reason the PLO does not burst through that door is that it is an umbrella organization riven by factional and tactical differences and not easily able to contemplate big risks like this one.
But a deeper reason, I suspect, is indicated by the constant PLO refrain that Israel controls the fate of the Palestinians and that American pressure to force Israel to disgorge Palestine is the only policy that will work.
In this refrain lies depressing evidence that Palestinians as a group have yet to move beyond a powerful and politically crippling self- image as the victims of historical circumstances beyond their changing. It is a blind spot of the Palestinians that they shy from responsibility for their own plight and take refuge in demanding that the United States compel Israel to withdraw to a preserve on the other side of a wall. Many of their friends, unfortunately, confirm them in this disposition.
The Palestinians have a case for a state, but they are a distance from a fully developed sense of a people's responsibility for its own destiny. This is the concept that brought another victim people, the Jews, to their state more than a generation ago. In brief, Palestinians remain in a psychological ghetto. One huge part of a Mideast peace is to bring them out.