Israeli officials say that the invasion of Lebanon and the smashing of the Palestine Liberation Organization have diminished pressure for a West Bank autonomy settlement unfavorable to Israel.
From the beginning of the invasion early last month, Israeli officials have said that they were intent on destroying the PLO, thus ridding themselves not only of its military force but also its political threat. Now that the military goal appears to be within sight, Israeli officials have expressed hope that their victory will create new openings in the autonomy talks.
An autonomy arrangement acceptable here seems closer now, according to the Israeli view, because before only PLO threats had prevented West Bank Palestinians from embracing the limited administrative autonomy envisaged by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government. The autonomy negotiations, which are currently stalled, are being conducted among Egypt, Israel and the United States as part of the Camp David agreements.
Without the PLO in Beirut, thinking here goes, the West Bank's nationalist leaders will lose support and be replaced by others willing to work with Israeli occupation authorities. Thus relieved of demands from the PLO and the West Bank for genuine self-determination, Israel, Egypt and the United States can come relatively easily to an agreement on West Bank autonomy that does not challenge permanent Israeli sovereignty or increased Jewish settlement in the area, officials predict.
"With the PLO gone, we believe it will be easier to resolve the problem of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria and reach a successful conclusion to the autonomy talks," Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly told a visiting French diplomat today, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
Shamir bluntly told the French Foreign Ministry's secretary general, Francis Gutmann, to stay out of the talks under way in Beirut among U.S., Lebanese and Palestinian officials, according to an account of their talk relayed by Israeli sources. The PLO is the "root of the problem" preventing Middle East peace, he told the French envoy, and therefore must be eradicated.
The autonomy talks have been stalled from the beginning because of a fundamental difference between Israel and Egypt and, to a lesser degree, Israel and the United States.
For Israel, the autonomy called for in the Camp David accords never meant more than local administration by Palestinians of some of their affairs in areas of concentrated Palestinian population. In this view, Nablus residents could administer their own health needs and garbage collection, for example, but Israel would retain sovereignty over the land and its resources, particularly water, and Jewish settlers in the growing number of colonies would remain under Israeli law.
For Egypt, however, the autonomy set down at Camp David was tantamount to an interim self-government scheduled to last five years. At the end of this interim period, according to the Egyptian view, the Palestinians could determine their own future, choosing to be an independent state or to be linked to Israel or Jordan in some type of federation the Palestinians would help define.
The U.S. position, according to Israeli and Egyptian officials, was closer to Egypt's than to Israel's, but it was never clearly defined in the three years of desultory autonomy negotiations that followed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979.
Before the invasion of Lebanon on June 6, Israeli officials had expressed fear that the U.S. stand was about to be clearly defined and would tilt to the Egyptian position, to the detriment of Israel's determination to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza. The Reagan administration at that time was proclaiming its adherence to the Camp David peace process, which was supposed to have produced an autonomy agreement by this spring. After avoiding pressuring Israel in the months leading to the withdrawal from the Sinai in April, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had declared that the United States was on the verge of a major new push to resolve the stalemate, and the Israelis feared that any push would necessitate Israeli concessions.
Recent news reports here said a U.S. team already was making plans to initiate indirect contacts with the PLO leadership in Beirut as part of an effort to revive the talks by winning at least acquiescence from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and other PLO moderates for participation by West Bank leaders who look to Beirut for direction. Palestinian sources in Beirut were saying before the invasion that Syria was applying heavy pressure on Arafat to prevent any such accommodation with the Camp David process.
Against this background, the Begin government's determination to exterminate the PLO as a political as well as a military force becomes easier to understand.
In any effort to revive the autonomy talks, Arafat would almost certainly have proved an obstacle to an arrangement that fell short of a chance for statehood.
As long as his PLO remained a rallying point for West Bank Palestinians--and a center of Palestinian power for European and U.S. diplomats--his stand would have to be taken into account, if not respected. All that is now thrown into doubt, with Israeli troops poised to assault West Beirut and Begin insisting Arafat and his followers must be banished or liquidated.
The Israelis believe that the PLO is an aberration rather than an expression of Palestinian nationalism and determination to have a state. With the leadership either killed or forced into another country where it is expected to be controlled, Israeli officials say, its appeal will be eclipsed and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will be free to deal with Israeli occupation in a friendly way.
Expressing this view, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said during a tour of the Beirut front today that once the PLO is eliminated, progress will be possible in the second phase of the Camp David accords-- that is, the autonomy negotiations.
Even before the invasion, Sharon got rid of all but one of the West Bank's elected mayors in major towns because the others sympathized too clearly with PLO politics. With PLO politics smashed in Beirut, his job of finding more cooperative replacements will likely be easier.
As a first step, Sharon announced recently that he is looking forward to meeting with West Bank leaders as soon as he can take time from the Lebanon operation.