A U.S. congressman said today that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat signed a statement that effectively recognized Israel's right to exist, but an authoritative PLO official and another congressman said afterward that the move did not mark a major policy change.
The PLO official said that the one-sentence, handwritten statement only reaffirmed the PLO's longstanding position that it would accept Israel in return for creation of a Palestinian state.
The outcome of the conflicting reports over the statement--signed by Arafat and given to Rep. Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.)--was confusion over how much the PLO is willing to compromise to reach a political settlement in Lebanon. It was unclear whether the statement provided for the unconditional acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which implicitly guarantees Israel's right to exist.
Israeli officials dismissed reports that Arafat had shifted position, characterizing the PLO chairman's action as a propaganda ploy, Washington Post correspondent Edward Walsh reported from Jerusalem.
Israeli warplanes bombed Palestinian refugee camps and other PLO targets in West Beirut and its southern suburbs for the fourth straight day. The air strikes started at about 8:30 p.m. and lasted about 30 minutes.
The Israelis also attacked Syrian and guerrilla positions in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa. The agency said that eight Israelis had been killed in the valley in the past 24 hours by guerrillas who attacked with machine guns and hand and rocket-propelled grenades.
U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib was expected to meet Jordan's King Hussein in London Monday to discuss where the Palestinians would go if there is a Lebanon settlement. Habib was en route to Britain after two days of meetings in Cairo with top Egyptian officials including President Hosni Mubarak.
Arafat signed the controversial statement during a 75-minute meeting in besieged West Beirut with McCloskey and three other members of a U.S. congressional delegation touring the Middle East.
McCloskey told reporters afterward that the guerrilla leader had signed a piece of paper on which McCloskey had written: "Chairman Arafat accepts all United Nations resolutions relevant to the Palestine questions."
It remained uncertain whether Resolution 242 was included, because it does not refer to Palestine or the Palestinians by name.
In addition, the statement appeared to endorse a number of U.N. General Assembly resolutions introduced by Arab states or their backers that have addressed the Palestinian issue and called for a Palestinian homeland. From Arafat's point of view, therefore, the statement may have endorsed Resolution 242 only as part of a package deal including creation of such a homeland.
McCloskey said that the resolutions endorsed by Arafat "include the right of Israel to exist." He added that the PLO now had met U.S. conditions for dealing directly with the group and that he would recommend to Secretary of State George P. Shultz "that we now open negotiations with the PLO."
According to McCloskey, Arafat replied affirmatively when asked if the U.N. resolutions he accepted in today's document included Resolution 242. But McCloskey noted that this was not specifically written down, and analysts remembered past occasions involving similar misunderstandings.
Passed in 1967 at the end of the Arab-Israeli war of that year, Resolution 242 guarantees the right of all states in the region to live in peace within secure and defensible borders. It only refers indirectly to the Palestinian issue, calling for a just settlement of the "refugee " problem caused by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and thereafter.
McCloskey also quoted Arafat as saying at another point in the meeting, "We can't accept 242 alone, but we accept it as part of other resolutions." When McCloskey asked if Arafat could simply say he accepted Israel's right to exist, the congressman said the Palestinian leader answered, "We want to do that in terms of a U.N. resolution accepting both the Israeli and Palestinian right to exist. We want simultaneous recognition."
An authoritative PLO official later put it more succinctly: "When we get a state, we are willing to recognize Israel," he said. "Until that process is under way, there will be no unilateral concessions over 242. The PLO will only make this concession for an equal concession: self-determination, i.e., a state, not for the privilege of talking to the U.S.A."
The PLO recently has been promoting the idea of a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would embody 242 but satisfy the Palestinian demand for a homeland. France and Egypt have drafted a resolution aimed at forging some kind of compromise that the United States could accept, but it has yet to go before the Security Council.
In recent years the PLO has made clear it would accept establishment of a Palestinian state on any territory wrested from or evacuated by Israel, a formulation widely interpreted as meaning the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to another congressman who attended the meeting with Arafat, Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.), no breakthrough resulted from the session and Arafat did not agree to any statement specifically recognizing Israel.
After traveling from Beirut's predominantly Christian east side, which has been largely unscathed in the fighting, to the besieged, mainly Moslem western sector, McCloskey, Rahall and two other members of the delegation were taken to see Arafat in the heavily damaged Palestinian neighborhood of Fakhani where many PLO offices are located.
Emerging from the meeting, Rahall told reporters, "The chairman Arafat stated to us in his meeting his acceptance of all U.N. resolutions relevant to the Palestinian question, and all of these I might add include the right of Israel to exist."
McCloskey then made a similar statement, adding that "with the acceptance of the U.N. resolutions in total, the United States should now move to negotiate with the PLO."
At this point Arafat, who was standing with the congressmen, appeared to correct McCloskey, saying, "All U.N. resolutions concerning the Palestinian question." McCloskey then said, "Chairman Arafat accepts all U.N. resolutions relevant to the Palestinian question," to which the guerrilla leader added, "Yes."
Rahall later seemed to play down the significance of the meeting and back away from his earlier remarks about it. He told a reporter, "I think this is very likely what he Arafat has been saying before."
In a July 21 commentary, the PLO news agency Wafa said:
"The PLO has expressed its willingness to accept a new Security Council resolution that would reaffirm the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination and at the same time would reaffirm principles embodied in earlier United Nations resolutions."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali described the reported acceptance by Arafat of U.N. resolutions on the Middle East as a step toward peace and urged Israel to recognize Palestinian rights in return, Reuter reported from Cairo.
"This is a step towards peace on the Palestinians' part and should be met by other steps from Israel that include recognition of the Palestinian people's legitimate rights," Ali told the official Middle East News Agency.
Correspondent Walsh added from Jerusalem:
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "The announcement by Congressman McCloskey, which was said to be in the name of Arafat, joins a long line of announcements that were made in the past and whose only purpose was to obtain propaganda advantages. In these announcements, clear words were never used (saying that) the terror organization specifically changes its goal, which was and remains the destruction of the state of Israel."
Israel has previously made it clear that it has no interest in dealing with the PLO, which it consistently calls a "terrorist" organization.
Here are key excerpts from the U..N. Security Council Resolution 242, Nov. 22, 1967:
"The Security Council . . . . affirms that the fulfillment of U.N. Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:
(i) Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent June 1967 conflict;
(ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;
. . . . and affirms further the necessity
. . . (b) for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.
(c) For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every state in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones."