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The Palestinian Issue and an Israeli Proposal: An Hallucination?

The Palestinian Movement has undergone a dramatic change since the Lebanese Civil War began. In their long and cruel confrontation with the Syrians and the Christian-Lebanese, they have suffered huge losses of civilian lives and have been subjected to serious military and political setbacks.

Developments in Lebanon during the last year and a half have had far-reaching implications for Israel. Terrorism has decreased in Israel and anti-Israeli propaganda and lob-bying, from Palestinian quarters, are both at a low point. It would not be surprising if Israel were tempted to disregard the Palestinian issue even more than it has in the past and concentrate on dealing with the various Arab states. Stability in Lebanon--a condition likely to be achieved in the near future--and a concomitant rise in tension in the Russian-Arab-Israeli-American arena will further encourage Israel to concentrate on this great-power diplomatic front.

Israel's failure to deal with the Palestinian problem could represent miscalculation. Israel may be allowing another big opportunity to slip by. The Palestinian problem essentially began with the creation of the state of Israel and it has been perpetuated as a result of active manipulation by Arab leaders and by the refusal on the part of Israel to take any initiative to reach a resolution. The problem wasn't "resolved" during the Lebanese war and will not be resolved in the future by violent means: that message was made abundantly clear by the cease-fire imposed by the Saudi Arabians on the Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon last month and at the summits in Riyadh and Cairo. Saudi Arabia and Egypt simply would not allow Syria to deliver the final blow to the Palestinians.

Thus, the Palestinian issue remains alive and important. There are Palestinians all over the world with large communities in several Arab countries, Israeli-occupied territories, and in Israel proper behind the so-called green line. They are not about to disappear and abandon their sense of national identity and their longing for a homeland. They will continue to struggle in order to win the right to self-determination. The main spokesman for this nationalist drive is the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized by nearly every nation in the world as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

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The PLO may have been defeated on the battlefield against the Syrians and Christians, but the organization has simultaneously won a political victory over the other important Palestinian groups. The once powerful Syrian-backed Al Saiqua group has practically been eliminated. Because of this organization's collusion with the Syrian army, many of its leaders have been arrested. And most of the members abandoned the movement when they discovered the Syrians' real intentions. The PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat, have emerged victorious in their power struggle against the Palestinian "rejection front" --a front that opposes any kind of settlement with Israel and strives for the total destruction of that nation as a condition for the creation of a Palestinian state.

This considerable weakening of the "rejection front," which is composed of a handful of terrorist organizations that were once quite effective, has been a direct consequence of a civil war in which only semi-traditional military organizations could have been functional. Tanks and trained infantry were provided by the PLO; terrorist tactics were of no use. Thus, Jabril (who has been jailed by the PLO and accused of collaborating with the Syrians) and George Habash, two of the most prominent leaders of the "rejection front" have lost much of their influence among the Palestinians. Presently, the only group that poses a threat to Arafat is the Popular Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) headed by Nayef Hawatmeh. PDFLP seems to be acquiring more importance, especially among the Palestinians in certain of the Lebanese camps. But the extent of the threat the PDFLP poses for the PLO remains to be seen, since the two groups basically share the same goals. Both have a relatively accommodating attitude toward the creation of a Palestinian state, although they do differ in what they see as the optimal means to achieve this goal. On this issue. Hawatmeh's group is even more extremist, if conceivable (we remember the Maalot massacre).

An obvious result of the Syrian-Palestinian clash in Lebanon has been the emergence of a completely autonomous PLO from Syrian influence. To a certain extent this is also true with respect to Russia. The Russians never actively supported the Palestinians during the war, and in a sense they even turned their backs on them. To the extent that their statelessness and relative weakening of political and military strength allows, the PLO has become a much more independent group and has therefore much greater flexibility of operation. The first signs of this flexibility are hints of a more pro-American stand, accompanied by a leaning towards the Egypt-Saudi Arabian side, the pro-western wing of the Arab world. (Hussein should also be mentioned as part of the pro-western wing, but for the time being he seems to be fairly isolated in the Arab world, except for some Syrian support.)

Iraq and Libya, the main representatives of the rejectionists among the Arab countries, have been considerably neutralization by the latest developments. To a somewhat lesser extent this is also true of Syria and Russia. The neutralization presents an excellent opportunity for a dialogue with the moderates in the Arab world--a confrontation which would neutralize the radicals even further.

And the U.S. is watchful for these new developments. It is increasingly aware of the potential role that it could play in the Middle East, and the Carter administration will probably try to exploit the opportunity arising from a new and dynamic situation. Since Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's foreign policy advisor, has stressed the need for a solution to the Palestinian question as a prerequisite for progress in the Middle East, considerable pressure on Israel can be expected.

With the combination of a more flexible PLO stand, a somewhat more conciliatory Egyptian (and pro-Palestinian and pro-Western) position and the prospect of effective U.S. pressure on Israel, the Jewish state will eventually have to come to grips with the problem. As an immigrant from Chile who has lived in Israel for a number of years. I believe that an Israeli initiative concerning the creation of a Palestinian state could be a valuable political move, even from a purely pragmatic Israeli point of view.

Historically, Israel has refused to confront the Palestinian problem, and the majority of the Israeli people still reject the idea of establishing an adjacent Palestinian state. But, there has been some change in Israeli public opinion, and there is potential for movement even further. The currently widespread concern over the Palestinian problem contrasts sharply with the situation of only a couple years ago. At that time, Gold a Meir denied the very existence of a Palestinian people. The morale of the Israelis has risen markedly since the Entebbe operation, and the country feels militarily strong. Judging from the past one would expect a somewhat greater willingness, on the part of the Israelis, to deal with such a problem from a position of strength. We are all psychologically cautious about making concessions under pressure, and given the terrorist record of the Palestinians the Israelis find themselves in an extremely defensive position. But at present, Israel has no need to worry about demonstrating weakness when making such a proposal; the country clearly has the upper hand.

But there is a problem of leadership in Israel. Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin is being challenged by the somewhat more conservative Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who will probably be a strong opponent to Rabin before the next elections scheduled for September '77. In addition, the threat of the right-wing opposition party is real. The party, headed by Menachim Begin, has recently shown a gain in popularity and could be a strong contestant for power. Rabin, therefore, will have to be extremely careful in his political endeavors.

However, with certain admitted risks, Rabin could try to exploit the present situation. And if he acts fast, he could reap some political benefits before the next elections. Thus, the Carter administration should be careful not to push Israel too hard before the elections: the polarizing effects of such a move could put Begin into power. The average Israeli would probably try to protect himself from external pressure by choosing this more intransigent ruler.

A Rabin initiative on the Palestinian question, even if initially mild, could lead to an extremely positive response from the U.S. The Americans could pave the way for such a proposal by pressing Egypt and Saudi Arabia and through them (or even directly) pressing the PLO to promise possible recognition of Israel if serious discussions of a Palestinian state take place. In influential quarters in Israel, if such a promise of recognition is made, people will be more willing to talk about a solution to the Palestinian problem.

The task ahead of Rabin would be huge, though. Political maneuvering and a massive informational campaign might be needed in order to make such a proposal acceptable to the populace. But the task is not impossible, and the potential benefits of such a proposal could be immense.

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