Once again President Reagan is being advised to initiate talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. No doubt something can be said for this move as a way of getting the Middle East peace talks off dead center. But is that all there is to it? Even if the situation suggests that Reagan heed such pleas, are there arguments favoring prudence that do not rely exclusively on Israeli reasoning?
Through the loss of their homeland, the Palestinians became the ultimate symbol of Arab sacrifice and, therefore, of Arab national purpose. What Nazi extermination camps had done for the Jewish nation, the Palestinian refugee camps did for the Arabs. Both peoples sought redemption through strength. For the Jews, it was building a pioneer society that ignored those whom Herzl himself referred to as "the possessors of the land." For the Arabs, it has been to compel the Israelis to accommodate the Palestinians, whatever the cost.
But in this Arab aim, the Palestinian people themselves have been of little consequence. The symbolism associated with the elevation in status that the PLO has acquired by being identified with the Arab Cause has afforded Yasser Arafat and his lieutenants little influence. Palestinian politicians have always been compelled to maintain themselves by soliciting help from one or another of the Arab states. They have thereby become clients of the governments of Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, each of which spends a large portion of its energy combating the influence of others within the competition of Arab national politics. In this contest, a leader offers just enough support to the PLO to permit him to have some influence within this symbolic Palestinian segment of the Arab nation.
The basis for this behavior may be unique. For Arabs, the state and the nation are not conterminous. Being leader of a state does not ensure command of the great overarching allegiance provided by the Arab nation. As we know from Richard Nixon's political demise, no leader can long survive who is isolated from his nation--or its symbols. For Arab leaders, politics are both complex and deadly.
The PLO has had a rocky history. Egypt has spurned it; in 1976 Syria slaughtered its fighting units in Lebanon; Iraq has assassinated its agents within the interplay of international terrorism; Libya has castigated its leaders as being godless. In Jordan a decade ago there was Black September. Currently, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs even deny Palestinians free entry into their countries. Everyone fears them but uses them. For the present, the PLO commands the loyalty of the Palestinian people. As a result, Arab countries see a need to give its leaders due regard. But beyond this tactical consideration, few Arab governments really take the PLO leadership into account.
The implication of this situation has been that at any time sentiment in the Arab world appears to be swinging toward a negotiated settlement, there is pressure on PLO leaders to support some version of its objectives. Otherwise they risk losing out in future Arab politics. We saw this phenomenon in 1974 when several Arab leaders accepted U.N. Resolution 242. It occurred again recently, just before the debacle at Fez over Prince Fahd's peace proposal.
But a shift in PLO posture is usually supported only by a portion of the leadership. Bitter recriminations erupt within the movement. Those PLO leaders who do periodically move toward moderation have always done so with an eye on the route of rapid retreat should the venture falter. The mental reservations and apparent opportunism of the PLO position are really the characteristics of weakness. Nevertheless, they do not assure Israel and the United States that Palestinian leaders mean what they say when they make statements that can be interpreted as not rejecting peace.
The curious place of the PLO in Arab politics raises serious questions about the role this organization could perform were it allowed into the negotiations. Could it bring the Palestinian people self-determination with a modicum of dignity while outside mediators such as the United States assured equitable consideration of the rights of the Israelis? The answer to this question is: probably not.
As a movement incorporating the symbols of the Arab nation, the PLO is less likely than Arab governments to accept the limitations that would result from the compromises of a negotiated settlement. Because each faction within the movement is always ready to castigate the others for less than unqualified adherence to the Arab Cause (a ritualistic vision of itself), the PLO as an entity becomes immobilized in any situation that places the national symbols in doubt--and that is exactly what negotiations do. In psychological terms, it is narcissism at its worst.
The power of the PLO leaders rests solely on the hold their movement has over the emotions of other Arabs. While this is a powerful force, it is unlikely ever to be translated into the positive attributes of policy. The PLO is poorly equipped to play a useful part in any attempt at the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Should the United States, then, have contact with the PLO? Perhaps. But should conversations be held with a view to bringing the movement's leadership into the peace process? Not yet. First, the leaders of Arab states must redefine the role of the PLO in terms of a settlement. It can no longer be just an expression of the Arab Cause. Such a task is not the responsibility of the United States, even as a Middle East mediator. The Arabs must determine for themselves what they hope to achieve from peace besides a further elevation of their national symbol. There is more to peace than that.