JERUSALEM, JUNE 21 -- The break in the dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization, although long sought by Israel, is not likely to alleviate tensions between Washington and Israel over the stalled Middle East peace process and may put more pressure on the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, officials here said today.
Despite the break, these officials noted, the Bush administration has not changed its view that the PLO remains essential to any Middle East peace process, and appears likely to continue trying to work with its leadership.
Consequently, they said, future U.S.-Israeli dealings on Middle East diplomacy are likely to stumble on the same fundamental difference of strategy that has plagued them for more than a year: While the United States is intent on taming the PLO, Israel's new, right-wing leadership remains dedicated to its eradication.
"I can't say I see a change in the strategic thinking of the United States, and this means our problems with the administration could continue," said a senior aide to Shamir, who asked not to be named. "I think that for the United States, the dialogue with the PLO was seen as a way of changing the organization into a more conventional political force and then gradually giving it responsibility. I don't think this concept has changed, and on this we are really at loggerheads with the U.S."
Shamir's leadership is strongly committed to the view that Israel and the United States must seek to marginalize the PLO leadership under Yasser Arafat and solicit or create a new cadre of Palestinian representatives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with no connections to the PLO. While the United States, Egypt and Israel's own opposition Labor Party say no Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is possible without the cooperation of the PLO, Shamir's Likud Party insists that only after the PLO is eliminated as an influence will Palestinians be willing to deal with Israel.
It was largely because of that difference that Shamir refused in March to accept a plan by Secretary of State James A. Baker III for Israeli-Palestinian talks. Rather than shutting out the PLO, Shamir contended, Baker's plan gave the PLO an indirect but vital role in the peace process. Ultimately, Shamir's refusal brought about the fall of his "unity" coalition government with the Labor Party. Now, Shamir leads a right-wing coalition, some of whose elements oppose talks of any kind with the Palestinians.
In public, Shamir and his aides continued today to urge that the United States make its break with the PLO permanent and strategic rather than temporary and tactical. "I hope that the suspension will not be temporary but instead will open a new chapter in the relations between the U.S. and the Middle East," Shamir said on Israeli radio.
Privately, Shamir's aides agreed with the assessment by several Israeli analysts that Bush's move has put the government here on the spot. After months of arguing to a dubious Washington that dialogue with the Palestinians is possible without the PLO, officials said, Israel now has a chance and a responsibility to prove its thesis.
"Possibly the worst thing the Israeli government could do now is take pride in its victory while failing to understand that the U.S. administration has, in fact, tossed the ball to Yitzhak Shamir," wrote commentator Oded Granot in the influential newspaper Maariv. "The time has come for the Israeli government to prove -- if it can -- that it can further peace without the PLO."
In the past, officials here concede, efforts by Shamir and other Likud leaders to open new channels of communication with Palestinians in the occupied territories that bypassed the PLO have been largely unsuccessful. Last summer, both Shamir and then-foreign minister Moshe Arens attempted to begin a series of meetings with local Palestinian leaders to discuss Shamir's plan to hold elections in the territories.
After word of Shamir's meeting with Ramallah lawyer Jamil Tarifi leaked to the Israeli press, however, Palestinians refused further contacts, pointedly referring Shamir and Arens to the PLO leadership in Tunis. Today, Israeli newspapers reported that the mayor of the Arab town of Tulkarm, in the West Bank, had rebuffed a new overture by Arens, who is now defense minister.
For the new government, "it will be very difficult to establish contacts," a senior aide to Shamir conceded today. He added: "It will be possible only if the United States and Arab states, like Egypt, join us in persuading Palestinians that they must forget the PLO and work directly with us."
Neither the United States nor Egypt appear likely to undertake that task of persuasion with the Palestinians, officials here say. Moreover, Shamir's new administration appears ready to introduce new complications by insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue be accompanied by the opening of bilateral contacts between Israel and Arab states such as Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
In several statements in recent weeks, Shamir and close supporters have hinted that Israel will take the position with the United States that it should not be obliged to open formal talks with Palestinians as long as the Arab states refuse to begin their own peace negotiations with Israel.
Diplomats here say such a stand would likely block all significant activity on the diplomatic front, but would allow Shamir to argue that the Arab states, and not his government, were holding up the process.