THE FLICKERING TELEVISION IMAGE of a number of prominent black Americans linking hands with Palestinian leaders and singing "We shall overcome" signified an important new trend in Mid-East politics. It reflected not only the recent tension between American blacks and jews, triggered by Andrew Young's forced resignation as ambassador to the United Nations, but also the belief shared by a growing number of Americans that the United States should end its policy of refusing to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The Carter Administration inherited this policy from former President Gerald R. Ford. Henry A. Kissinger '50 committed the United States in 1975 to shunning the PLO as part of an effort to encourage warm relations between the U.S. and Israel. While Washington must continue to support Israel's security interests, it cannot continue to ignore the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The U.S. has international responsibilities beyond those of maintaining warm relations with Israel. Prudence, pragmatism, and fairness dictate that we should open a dialogue with the PLO.
The U.S. now refuses to talk with the PLO until it recognizes Israel's right to exist. But we never required that Israel recognize the right of the Palestinians to have a homeland. Moreover, it is absurd to expect the leaders of the PLO to call a surprise press conference and announce their decision that Israel does indeed have a right to exist.
NATIONS DON'T WORK THAT WAY. They are proud; even when they wish to change their posture they hesitate to do so publicly, admitting previous error. The PLO also gets much of its funding from radical Arab states and would only reluctantly break ranks. Finally, acceptance of Israel would be a major concession that PLO leaders want to keep as a trump card in future negotiations.
Leaders of the PLO say privately they are now resigned to accept Israel's existence as a fact of life. For example, PLO head Yasser Arafat told visiting American black leaders last month he supports a U.N. resolution that, in part, "provides for the sovereignty of all states" in the Middle East. This concession reflects the PLO's search for legitimacy and echoes its general shift of direction since 1973 from terrorist tactics to diplomatic channels. Of course, the PLO still includes terrorist elements but they will subside only if moderation and diplomacy prove more effective than terrorism.
It is self-delusion to see the Palestinians as unreasonable terrorists and dismiss the issue. Conditions of hopelessness and despair encourage violent response, and the solution lies not in turning a cold shoulder but in soothing Palestinian ills. If they are to be made more reasonable and less violent, it must be by talking with them instead of closing our ears to what they are saying.
The U.S. now shuns the PLO because it uses terrorist tactics. But Israeli guerrillas--under Menachem Begin--also used terrorist tactics in the period before the creation of Israel in 1948. Moreover, the recent bombings of civilian Palestinian camps in Lebanon are as deplorable as violent raids by Palestinian terrorists.
My point is not to condemn either side, but to observe that both have made mistakes and that both have sincere desire for peace. No long term interests are served by ignoring the PLO and wishing the problem away. A meaningful, durable peace can be achieved only by including the displaced, homeless people who live there. The Palestinians are central to a peace treaty and the PLO seems to have the support of most Palestinians, a group that has no other voice.
This may not be the time, however, for the U.S. to officially recognize the PLO. That option should be reserved as a carrot if the PLO acts reasonably and in good faith. This approach would be consistent with American policy toward the People's Republic of China before the normalization of relations early this year. Although the U.S. did not officially recognize China, the two countries did hold periodic talks to keep open the lines of communication.
Furthermore, a willingness by the U.S. to talk to the PLO would provide a much-needed assurance to Third World countries that the U.S. is indeed sensitive to the problems and aspirations of nonwestern nations. Such a move would also improve America's standing among the Arab nations, all of which recognize the PLO. Refusing even to listen to the Palestinians can only aggravate the petroleum exporting countries.
Israel and the Arab nations also must pay more attention to the plight of the Palestinians. But a change in the American policy toward the PLO would make it more likely for other countries to follow suit. Israel Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan already has met with PLO sympathizers--a significant step forward indicating that Israeli policy with respect to the Palestinians may not be as rigid as most people believe, particularly if the next prime minister adopts a more moderate position than Begin's entrenched opposition to a palestinian state.
ISRAELI SECURITY--Begin's utmost concern--can best be ensured by a comprehensive peace that provides a homeland for the Palestinians. Israeli security and Mid-East justice can go hand in hand, but progress can be achieved only through the participation of all parties--including the PLO.