Now that it has completed the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, the government of Israel should consider extending unconditional recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization as a major representative of the Palestinian people. PLO leader Yassir Arafat should be invited to follow in the footsteps of Egypt's late President Anwar el-Sadat and visit Jerusalem. And the PLO should be summoned to take its seat at the Palestine autonomy negotiations.

The act of invitation and recognition should involve no conditions or qualifications-but neither should it imply concessions on Israel's part. Indeed, the point of departure for this proposal is, from the Israeli outlook, more hawkish than dovish on the Palestine issue: it acknowledges that the PLO and its leadership are extremist terrorists bent on Israel's total destruction; it assumes that Israel must maintain at least a strong security presence throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the foreseeable future; and it recognizes that evacuation of Israeli settlements from these territories is fast becoming a political impossibility.

Why, then, should Israel unilaterally recognize the PLO? For a number of sound tactical reasons which, taken together, only enhance Israel's strategy of ensuring its own security within safe borders. Categorizing these reasons somewhat arbitrarily for the sake of simplicity, the first may be termed image-building-enhancing Israel's image in its own eyes, and in the eyes of the world. The second may be defined under the catch-all heading of Realpolitik. And the third may be understood as a broader political effort to improve Israel's tactical position vis-à-vis the Arab world and the West.


During the 1950s and early 1960s, in fact right up to the close of the Six-Day War in 1967, it was a great deal easier to be an Israeli-and not only because Israel was "David" and the Arabs "Goliath." Israel also talked unconditional and unqualified peace then: it was officially prepared to meet with any Arab leader, anywhere and under any conditions, and talk peace. The fact that the Arabs' spokesmen-Nasser of Egypt, Shukairy of the Palestinians-replied with threats to push Israel into the sea not only made Israel's public relations task easier throughout the world, it also made it easier for Israelis to live in a state of perpetual siege and to bear their trials and tribulations. They felt they were doing everything possible for peace. They would meet the Arabs head-on anywhere, anytime. They felt extremely unified in this knowledge. Such a sound self-image is worth a great deal to a small country under siege.

Even the Six-Day War did not immediately change the Israeli image and self-image. Having relied on its credit with world opinion to justify its victories, Israel's reflex reaction after the war was to offer to give back everything, all its conquests, in return for peace. It was only with the passage of time, and the shattering of Israel's naïve delusion that the Arabs might realize they had had enough and extend a hand of peace, that the images began to change. Within a few weeks Israel annexed East Jerusalem. As then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan put it, he was tiring of "waiting for Hussein to telephone." Qualification upon qualification began to be piled on Israel's traditional readiness to talk peace, as the strategic value of the conquered territories became more and more appealing: no PLO; the Allon Plan for carving up the West Bank; East Jerusalem is nonnegotiable; we'll never descend from the Golan Heights; there is no Palestinian people, and so on and so on. No longer would Israel meet with any Arab anywhere, anytime, to talk peace. Regardless of the justice and logic of Israel's new conditions and qualifications, the world took skeptical note of Israel's new image. So did many Israelis.

Israel's pre-1967 readiness to talk peace unconditionally was of course a tactic, albeit a sincere one. Israel had few concessions to make, no territory or rights to give up in return for Arab recognition and peace. It was easy to offer to talk to Nasser when you knew he would only snarl a new threat in return. But the tactic, unsuccessful though it was in promoting peace, was part of a larger strategy of maintaining both Israeli confidence and morale at home, and world support for Israel abroad. As such, it was successful.

Israel's post-1967 tactic of presenting qualifications-territory, recognition, acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242-not for a willingness to agree on peace terms but for a readiness even to talk, has not been a success. The proof is in the only achievement registered on the peace front since then-the 1977 Sadat initiative and its aftermath. It was only when Israel hinted to Sadat that it would drop its post-1967 conditions-in effect, return to its position of the weeks immediately following the Six-Day War and offer to restore all conquered Egyptian territory in return for peace-that Sadat seized the initiative and came to Jerusalem. And it was quite natural that Sadat, who appeared to be taking the pre-1967 Israeli position of willingness to talk anywhere, anytime about peace, garnered all the world's praise and credit. Still, Israel too got good press and a moral boost from the peace experience with Sadat, until it allowed itself to appear to be stifling the new process in a myriad of legalistic conditions concerning the Palestinian problem, the terms of peace, etc.

It would undoubtedly be a gross and unjust distortion to state that Israel's post-1967 penchant for placing conditions and qualifications on its willingness to discuss peace-justified as it may have been-has been the only cause of Israel's image and self-image problems. But this intransigent face certainly appears to have contributed its fair share.

Applying this insight to Israeli-Palestinian relations, it must be noted at the outset that Israeli and PLO objectives regarding the disposition of the territory of "Palestine-Eretz Yisrael" appear to be mutually exclusive. Yet this fact should have no more relevance to the question of Israeli readiness to recognize and talk with the PLO than did Nasser's threatening replies to Israel's pre-1967 peace offerings. Then, as now, Israel's strategic goal was to ensure its own survival within secure borders; then, as now, the offer to talk with an Arab who threatened to murder every last Jew in Israel was a tactic-it improved Israel's security position just a bit more, and therefore it was preferable to even a hint of intransigence as an overt policy position. Israelis felt better about it, and the world felt better about Israel. It did not prevent the 1956 and 1967 wars, but it made them more palatable and justifiable.

At present, no one in the Israeli political mainstream is prepared to take such an unqualified attitude toward the PLO. Even the more liberal Israelis, who support some form of qualified recognition of the PLO, condition their declared readiness to deal with that organization on its willingness to accept U.N. Resolution 242 and/or, implicitly or explicitly, to recognize Israel and renounce both terrorist tactics and the Palestine National Covenant's claim to all of Palestine. This is basically the U.S. position, too. Its weaknesses are compound: from the public relations point of view it remains, after all, "qualified," and thus subject to attack, modification, erosion, negotiation, endless interpretation and, above all, suspicion. Indeed, both Israeli and Palestinian supporters of dialogue on this basis are vilified by both sides' more extreme, and majority, elements.

Yet, practically speaking, were the PLO leadership to accept these minimal Israeli conditions, Israel would be placed on the spot. For, in the wake of the Sadat assassination, and in view of the generally dour Israeli mood regarding the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace, few in Israel would actually believe in the PLO leadership's sincerity or the viability of its peace offerings. Yet the international community would proceed to condemn any Israeli refusal to respond to the PLO's gesture of acceptance. Indeed, even the Begin government, which categorically refuses to deal with the PLO under any circumstances, would be hard put to maneuver its way out of some sort of forthcoming response. PLO recognition of Israel would, after all, satisfy U.S. conditions for recognition as well as those of quite a few Israelis, and it would thereby create a serious crisis both in U.S.-Israeli relations and within the Israeli body politic.

Assuming the PLO's fundamentally negative intentions toward Israel, it would appear that the most "liberal" yet qualified Israeli position regarding the PLO could bring it nothing but trouble. Why not, then, turn the tables completely and return to a policy of unconditional willingness to talk with one's most implacable enemy? Were Israel to do this, it would score a propaganda victory on a worldwide scale. The onus of reasonable initiative would fall on the PLO and, as we shall see, everything points to the probability that that organization would not be up to the challenge. As a corollary, Israeli morale, self-esteem and unity would be boosted by this display of confident readiness to talk about peace anywhere with anyone. And as a further domestic by-product, Prime Minister Menachem Begin (assuming he remains in office for some time to come) might find his popularity augmented by having preempted the Israeli Left with a surprising, but logical move. He might even enjoy presenting it as another case of his acting in the Ben-Gurion (i.e., pre-1967) mold.


On the level of Realpolitik, Israel should initiate contact with the PLO because the PLO is there: it is the major spokesman for the Palestinians and a major factor in Middle Eastern and international life. When the need has arisen, Israel has not hesitated to maintain contacts with other Middle East figures with a gangster mentality and bloodstained hands, such as Syrian President Hafez al-Assad; and, in fact, Israel has already talked to the PLO unconditionally through certain West Bank mayors who are members in good standing of that organization, and through U.S. special representative Philip Habib, who negotiated a de facto ceasefire agreement between the two parties in the summer of 1981.

The Israeli leadership could, if it so wished, look upon its recognition of the PLO in terms quite familiar to all Israelis: those of "establishment" or "authority" versus "terrorists." Modern psychology has devised fairly successful methods of dealing with desperate terrorists, hijackers and hostage-takers. The representatives of established authority talk to the terrorists, and try to engage them in a dialogue. In this way they learn the terrorists' weaknesses and pressure-points. Meanwhile, commando forces gain time and valuable information for their operative plans. If the terrorists do not give up peacefully-occasionally they do-the ultimate use of force against them is that much more effective thanks to the talking stage. Nor did the act of negotiation compromise the freedom to use force, or detract from its effectiveness. On the other hand, a refusal to recognize the terrorists' very existence-in this case a refusal to talk to them or even listen to their extremist and unacceptable demands-could only have produced a less than optimal outcome.

The benefits and advantages associated with the Israeli offer to recognize and negotiate with the PLO cannot be appreciated without at least limited reference to some of the internal contradictions which characterize both the PLO and Israel today.

The PLO is an umbrella organization, embodying a fairly wide spectrum of Palestinian political opinion. This spectrum ranges from independents and certain elements within Fatah which at times at least imply, either for cynical or sincere reasons depending on the personalities and circumstances involved, that they would be prepared to live in a small Palestinian state next to Israel, to Marxists and maximalists who openly advocate not only Israel's destruction but a restructuring of the entire Arab world in the image of South Yemen. This is the PLO's weakness. The PLO's strength is in its ability to downplay this diversity and present a "consensus" stand to the world-couched in moderate terms for Western consumption, and in extremist terms for Arab eyes and ears. Thus the PLO fortifies the notion of a united Palestinian people, backed by a united Arab world, demanding Palestinian rights. The verbal calisthenics involved in maintaining this image-Arafat will make conciliatory remarks to a Western interlocutor one day, and issue violent denials to the Arab press the next-are and will continue to be workable as long as the PLO is not called upon to take a genuine negotiating stand or even to show up for negotiations. For the organization's real lack of flexibility and cohesion would show if its leaders, put to the test, had to make the agonizing choice between taking a stand and risking both the PLO's disintegration and their own personal safety, and retreating into "safe" intransigence.

Moreover, because of a long history of regional rivalries, and due to moderate Arabs' fears of PLO leftist tendencies, the PLO is solidly mistrusted by those same Arab states which so ardently press its case in international forums. Jordan is a target of PLO subversion. Syria itself openly claims the territory of Palestine and backs its own, loyal Saiqa faction within the PLO. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states fear Palestinian subversion against their patriarchal regimes. Egypt's sense of "responsibility" for Palestine's fate did not prevent it from making a separate peace with Israel.

The sum total of these contradictions is a rather delicate equilibrium. The PLO-or its leadership, i.e., Arafat and his closest advisers-cannot possibly put its cards on the table in a negotiating situation with Israel without sharply antagonizing some of its own factions as well as some of its backers in the Arab world. Indeed, the odds are that the PLO, if presented with a genuine invitation to negotiate unconditionally with Israel, would either back down or present its most extremist demands.

The PLO's inability to deal with genuine gestures of moderation was again brought home in January 1982, when three leading Palestinian moderates-the PLO's Issam Sartawi, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij and Gaza Mayor Rashad A-Shawa-made statements encouraging the PLO to seek contact with moderate Israelis. Freij and A-Shawa, in particular, justified their plea with reference to their fear that the Israeli settlement pattern in the territories would soon endanger the Palestinian Arab population's viability there as a potential national entity. Within two days, PLO threats had caused both mayors to issue hurried disclaimers, while Sartawi, who had already been officially condemned by the PLO for his contacts with Israeli leftists, was again disowned.

Then, too, as recently as mid-March 1982 Arafat told an American TV interviewer that to recognize Israel as Sadat had done would be tantamount to suicide on his part-"the people" would never forgive him. Recently, too, Nahum Goldmann, former President of the World Zionist Organization, has related in his autobiography how Arafat refused on three separate occasions to meet with him, due to intra-PLO rivalries.

Thus, the effect on the PLO itself, and on its inter-Arab and international standing, of challenging it to join the Camp David process could be so damaging as to obviate the need for further justification of such a move on Israel's part. In this way Israel might succeed in striking a stronger blow at the PLO's terrorist and extremist foundations than even military action has achieved.

Realpolitik considerations apply to Israel, too. The Jewish population of Israel has recently become a house divided-between those who favor settling and annexing the West Bank and those who oppose this policy; between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews; between Labor Zionism and the forces of revisionist and religious Zionism which have supplanted it in the halls of power in Jerusalem. Moreover, just as the fact of PLO primacy as a principal representative of the Palestinian cause seems more or less self-evident today to most international observers of the Middle East, so these same observers must address the new geopolitical reality which Likud Party politics has imposed upon Israel (prominent anti-Likud Israelis, from writer Amos Elon to politician Shimon Peres, have recently begun to indicate that they do indeed, albeit regrettably, recognize it): the West Bank settlements are fast becoming a way of life for Israelis; the government's policy of subsidizing relatively cheap housing for Israelis there is so attractive that even home-hungry Israeli leftists are prepared to rationalize the idea of a move there. Organized political opposition to the notion of mass Jewish settlement of the West Bank is dwindling rapidly, as the Sinai withdrawal trauma (no doubt encouraged and even orchestrated to some extent by certain members of the ruling coalition, with the West Bank in mind) and the Golan annexation work their way into the public's consciousness. A large Israeli consensus opposing withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza has now become an undeniable factor in any future negotiations over the Palestine issue.

Still, large segments of the Israeli population remain deeply troubled by the ramifications for Israel of prolonged control over a million Palestinians. To many thoughtful Israelis, the only options seemingly left open by Prime Minister Begin's policies of the past five years are extended military control by force of one population over another-with all the moral discomfort this implies for young Israeli soldiers-or annexation, with its potential for turning Israel into a dual-national state and, eventually, for making Jews a minority in their own country. Even religious Zionists who believe wholeheartedly in Israel's God-given right to Judea and Samaria, are discomfited when confronted with the vision of the ultimate result for Israel. An Israeli gesture of recognizing the PLO without making any concessions on the Palestine issue itself would satisfy many of these Israelis' doubts as to whether Israel was doing everything possible to further a Palestinian solution. It would offer Israelis who are otherwise divided over many issues a new common ground upon which to consolidate a measure of unity.

Paradoxically, such a move would be strangely consistent with key aspects of Likud policy. Both Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir frequently declare that there already is a Palestinian state-Jordan-and that it is to this entity that Palestinians should look for their national identity. The logic of this position dictates that, were the PLO to take over Jordan, the Israeli government would not be dissatisfied. (Indeed, Sharon is known to have espoused this very idea on several occasions.) For in such a case, the West Bank problem would boil down to the relatively simple need to define the nature of a mixed-population buffer zone between two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine. Were Israel to seek to further such a solution by its own means, it would appear that some degree of collaboration with the PLO would be necessary.

Thus, even if the Begin government were to abhor the notion of sitting down with the PLO to discuss autonomy, it should be at least as willing to talk with Arafat about Jordan-which it does not control-as it says it is to talk with Assad about the Golan or Saudi Crown Prince Fahd about Jerusalem, both of which it does control.

Even Begin and Sharon's present policy of cultivating the rural West Bank village leagues-an alternative political force which is opposed to Jordan, to the West Bank town mayors and to the PLO, and which presumably is prepared to discuss autonomy with Israel-need not clash with Israeli recognition of the PLO. For one, the PLO refuses to discuss autonomy anyway. Then, too, if Sharon's design succeeds and a new and compliant West Bank leadership with a rural base does arise, one inevitable corollary will be even greater adherence to the PLO on the part of the frustrated urban elite-the intellectuals and elected mayors-who will be left out of this arrangement. In other words, Begin and Sharon might find a partner to provide some sort of human infrastructure for autonomy, but they will have enhanced the PLO's standing in the Arab world in general, and among large segments of the West Bank population in particular. Certainly, they will not have "solved" the Palestinian problem to the Arabs' satisfaction, and the PLO will continue to function as the principal manifestation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is the official Israeli Labor Party position, with its advocacy of territorial compromise with Jordan on the West Bank, which is most irreconcilable with PLO recognition. But Begin is under no ideological obligation to Jordan. Nor does he intend to facilitate the setting up of a Palestinian state in the West Bank through negotiation with the PLO, which he compares to the Nazis. Yet perhaps he would not deny the simple fact of PLO leadership of most Palestinians if he could be persuaded that he could only improve Israel's tactical position by making such a move.

Suppose, however, that the impossible were to happen. Suppose that the PLO, or a sizable faction within it, properly fed up with being manipulated by the Arab countries for their own aggrandizement, were to see some advantage in initiating constructive relations with Israel. Perhaps, too, the United States, Western Europe and/or the Soviets would pressure the PLO to agree to talks with Israel. Or Arafat might devise some sufficiently cloudy verbal formula of recognition to satisfy the West, silence his own extremists and alarm Israelis. Would the Israeli government be on the spot?

Not if its autonomy proposals are sincere. After all, the United States endorsed them at Camp David, and the main European reservation has been that they did not include a specific invitation to the PLO. Thus if-but only if-Arafat were to do the unexpected and agree to discuss five years of limited autonomy, Israel would have to talk to him.

Meanwhile, Begin and Sharon have other initiatives of their own to present to the PLO-initiatives which could only widen Israel's inter-Arab field of maneuver. For one, they could put forth the "Jordan equals Palestine" idea on a practical basis. They could also discuss some sort of permanent modus vivendi with the PLO in troubled Lebanon-perhaps Israeli guarantees for the Palestinians there against Syrian designs on their freedom of maneuver, in return for institutionalization of the ceasefire. Nor, incidentally, is there anything in the proposed Israeli recognition to keep the Israeli government from striking at PLO terrorist concentrations in Lebanon if the security need arises. One can fight an enemy and recognize him at the same time-the 1974 protracted ceasefire and withdrawal negotiations with Syria, accompanied by a war of attrition, come to mind.

Lastly, assuming it could be persuaded that recognizing the PLO would not bring catastrophe upon Israel, the Begin government could exploit such a move either to fortify its shaky coalition majority at home, or to strengthen its image prior to new elections. For the overall effect of such a move would be that of a strong, confident Israeli government preempting its most vocal opposition at home.

If outmaneuvering and discrediting the PLO by recognizing it could further an Israeli hawk-dove consensus, it would be beneficial for Israel. If recognition should kindle Palestinian willingness to discuss possible common interests with Israel in Jordan or Lebanon, it might be worth a try. If the PLO were actually to surprise everyone by agreeing to sit down and discuss the Camp David autonomy plan, then such a move might actually further the peace and add momentum to the Arab-Israeli rapprochement begun by Sadat. If, on the other hand, the PLO replied to unconditional Israeli recognition, offered without concessions, as one might expect it to-by couching its reply in terms which continue to negate Israel's fundamental right to exist within secure borders, and which reject the Camp David autonomy framework-then it would have set itself up for international and possibly even inter-Arab condemnation, and allowed Israel to pursue its national interests less fettered by international and internal criticism.


Finally, Israel should recognize the PLO in order to enhance the Israeli position internationally. By preempting anticipated U.S. pressures, the move would improve the foundation of Israeli-U.S. relations. By taking pressure off Egypt on the inter-Arab scene, it would further the Israeli-Egyptian normalization process. By developing greater flexibility and leverage vis-à-vis the Arab world, Israel might improve its relations with some of its neighbors. And by placing the onus of a Palestinian autonomy stalemate on the Palestinians, Israel would be better able to protect its own vital interests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Let us assume that one day Mr. Begin, in his finest rhetoric and his best tradition of tactical surprise (remember not only the raids on Iraq's Osiraq reactor and the PLO's Beirut headquarters, but also the Israeli enticements which led Sadat to make his historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977), were to declare something along the following lines:

Israel considers the PLO to be our implacable enemy, determined to use every lowly means of terror and murder to fulfill its goal of eliminating Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. We shall continue to counter and anticipate PLO violence with Israeli military action, wherever and whenever we see fit. At the same time, to deny the PLO's role as a prominent representative and leader of the Palestinian people is no more logical than to deny that Assad of Syria and Fahd of Saudi Arabia-both of whom we have invited to Jerusalem for unconditional talks despite our dislike for their corrupt and undemocratic regimes-are the recognized leaders of their countries.

It might appear to rational observers that Israel has nothing to offer such a terrorist organization as the PLO. Yet we have vowed to leave no stone unturned in our quest for peace with our neighbors. Moreover, we are not insensitive to the urgings-public and vocal among our Western European friends, more subtle in the United States-that Israel initiate some form of breakthrough on the Palestinian question. Nor are we blind to the suffering inflicted on Palestinian women and children over the past 33 years.

Bearing in mind these considerations, the Government of Israel hereby:

(1) Recognizes the PLO as a prominent representative of the Palestinian Arab people.

(2) Invites Mr. Arafat or his representative to come to Jerusalem for unconditional talks on any subject he wishes to discuss. For its part the Government of Israel will raise the subject of the Camp David autonomy talks, which constitute the official American, Egyptian and Israeli framework for solving the Palestinian issue.

The PLO's probable reaction to such an announcement of recognition and invitation has already been described. It would most likely be a flat, self-righteous refusal. With all Israeli preconditions removed, the PLO, from a tactical standpoint, would no longer be able to hide behind proposals of U.N. trusteeships and similar indirect formulae for avoiding contact with the hated Israelis. Its refusal to accept the Israeli gesture would be seen as intransigence-pure and simple. This in turn would make any extreme Israeli measure regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip-such as imposed autonomy-just a little easier for the world to swallow. Just as Israel justified its annexation of the Golan Heights-to the world and to the Israeli people-by pointing out that for 14 years it had been offering Syrian President Assad unconditional talks and was now tired of waiting-so in the Palestinian case a PLO rebuff could be seen by many as a justifiable last straw for Israel.

However the PLO were to react-internal dissent, united rejection, or even willingness to talk-the effect of such a tactical move on Israel's part would be particularly beneficial for Israel from the standpoint of its relations with the United States, Western Europe and, most important, the Arab world.

Israeli recognition of the PLO-and the invitation to join the Camp David negotiations-would take some of the post-withdrawal pressure off Egyptian-Israeli relations. No longer would Egypt have to represent the Palestinians in the autonomy negotiations. Nor would Egyptians have to continue to feel that they had forsaken their duty to the Palestinians in making a separate peace with Israel. If Israel is ready to talk autonomy with the PLO-then Egypt is off the hook. Egypt can more freely cultivate its own bilateral relations with Israel if it so desires. And if it does not, Egypt can no longer use Israeli footdragging on autonomy as an excuse for not honoring its own Camp David commitments.

Then, too, the possibility of an Israeli-PLO dialogue could spur King Hussein of Jordan to look out for his own interests in the West Bank-interests which are fundamentally very much at odds with those of the PLO-lest either he be left out of an Israeli-PLO deal, or Israel agree to look the other way when next the PLO tries to install itself in Amman. If this were to bring Hussein to the negotiating table with something less than his maximalist demand of total Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli gambit toward the PLO would have been a worthwhile exercise. (In this sense, the tactic outlined here could dovetail with the Israeli Labor Party's support for territorial compromise with Jordan.) Syria also, with its latent fears of a strong Palestinian-Jordanian state and the growth of Palestinian influence in Lebanon, might become more flexible in its policy toward Israel under these circumstances.

Israeli recognition of the PLO could also further the prospects of direct Israeli contact with Saudi Arabia. Certainly the thrust of many Saudi policy statements of the past two years has been to tie peace with Israel to Israeli recognition of the PLO. Here again, if the Arab stance is mere rhetoric, then the Israeli move will unmask it. If, on the other hand, the Saudis are looking for a way to initiate contact with Israel while ensuring that their Palestinian flank is covered and their consciences are clear, then an Israeli statement of readiness to listen to the PLO could prove a big step in the right direction.

Turning to Western Europe, Israeli recognition of the PLO would appear to satisfy the principal condition which the European Economic Community in its June 1980 Venice Declaration attached to the Camp David agreements. Israel would have ample grounds for requesting both a European statement of approval for its move, and EEC condemnation of anything but a forthcoming, moderate PLO reaction.

The situation vis-à-vis the United States is different. For here Israel would appear to be throwing away one of its greatest tactical assets by recognizing the PLO. The United States, after all, is honor bound by its 1975 commitment to the Rabin government-given in partial exchange for Israel's second Sinai disengagement in September of that year-neither to recognize nor to deal with the PLO until that organization accepts Resolution 242 and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Why should Israel voluntarily do what it has persuaded the United States not to do?

The answer is twofold. On the one hand, that 1975 commitment is, from the American point of view, one of the most grating and angering aspects of U.S.-Israeli relations. For a superpower to be held ransom by a regional power over an issue of untold sensitivity and importance to the superpower in its regional relations may be temporarily gratifying to the regional power, but it is galling to the superpower. Ultimately the United States, when it sees fit, will unilaterally abrogate this commitment just as it has done with other promises to Israel. The October 1977 Soviet-American memorandum of agreement on the Middle East-nipped in the bud by the Sadat peace initiative-was already a step in this direction. It could well be repeated when U.S.-Soviet relations require such a concession on Washington's part, or if-now that all of Sinai has been returned-the United States no longer feels it necessary to indulge the Israeli government and restrain its reaction to Israel's more provocative initiatives. Thus for Israel's own sake, it should negotiate the cancellation of this concession as soon as possible.

Moreover, the fairly obvious need for Israel to repair its image in the United States-in the wake of Begin's 1981 activism in bombing the Iraqi reactor and the PLO's Beirut headquarters, and Israel's annexation of the Golan-makes it all the more urgent that Israel find an innovative and positive way of grasping the initiative now that the return of Sinai may permit the United States to make more insistent demands on Israel.

Were Israel to take the initiative, it could still exploit the 1975 agreement to extract important concessions and commitments from the United States in return for Israeli willingness to release the United States from its obligation not to talk with the PLO. Concessions such as a firm U.S. endorsement of the implications of the English-language version of U.N. Resolution 242-that significant territories conquered in 1967 remain in Israel's hands to ensure Israeli security-or perhaps the long-awaited transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, come to mind as possible Israeli demands in such a case, along with a firmer framework for strategic collaboration between the two countries.


True, an Israeli leadership which sincerely believes it can forever prevent the United States from moving toward contact with the PLO or from forcing a Palestine solution upon Israel, will be loath to adopt the tactic proposed here. Moreover, the Israeli public as a whole, and Prime Minister Begin's political supporters in particular, have long been conditioned to an attitude of resolute rejection regarding the PLO; this is a difficult stumbling block for any leader to overcome. But perhaps the main rationale for such a leadership's position is the feeling that by agreeing to meet the PLO head-on, whether conditionally or unconditionally, Israel would somehow be displaying weakness, and would thus be exposing its flanks to an international movement to force concessions upon it-a fear, in effect, that the world would exploit a momentary lapse on Israel's part and some dubious phraseology on the PLO's part, in order to "ram the PLO down Israel's throat."

At the heart of this fear is the Israeli perception that recognition of the PLO is a major concession on Israel's part-and concessions, in certain contexts, are indeed signs of weakness. That is why it is important for Israel to present-to itself and to the world at large-its change of position regarding the PLO not as a strategic retreat, but rather as a new, stronger tactic. Not as a move "toward" the PLO, but as a dynamic initiative intended to upset Arab equilibrium and recover points for Israel. Not as a humiliating reversal of policy, but as a keen recognition that the facts of life have overtaken ideology, politics and international resolutions together, and that only quick, far-reaching action will pull success out of stalemate. The Nixon-Kissinger reversal of U.S. policy toward China in the early 1970s and the Sadat peace initiative of 1977 come to mind as similar dramatic policy reversals which became sources of pride and praise rather than chagrin and which, with the passage of time, have come to be understood as tactical changes of course within the framework of a major strategic vision. So it could be with Israel and an initiative regarding the PLO: unqualified Israeli recognition of the PLO could, if executed properly and prenegotiated with the United States and the Arabs for all it is worth, serve as a major means for Israel to realize its strategic aims in the Middle East.

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  • Joseph Alpher is Executive Editor at Tel Aviv University's Center for Strategic Studies. From 1969 to 1980 he served as an official in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office.
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