The PLO Isn’t Intransigent—Israel and the U.S. Are


The Washington Post, July 16, 1988


Yasser Arafat’s spokesman, Bassam Abu Sharif, created an uproar with an op-ed piece in The New York Times. He has been condemned by several hard-line Palestine Liberation Organization factions; some American commentators have hailed his essay as one of the most important documents in the history of the conflict; Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has dismissed the articles as “nothing new.”

              Two columns on the Sharif essay have appeared in The Post, one by Stephen S. Rosenfeld [op-ed, June 24] and one by Jim Hoagland [op-ed, June 30]. Both writers emphasized that the Sharif article is not an authoritative statement of PLO policy. It was not approved by the PLO executive committee; and although Arafat undoubtedly okayed its publication, he didn’t sign it. Rosenfeld sees the initiative as a demonstration of Palestinian frailty. And Hoagland chose to respond to the Abu Sharif essay by denouncing Arafat as part of the problem, no part of the solution.

              Rosenfeld wrote of a need to demonstrate that Abu Sharif is “not merely playing out a charade.” Hoagland went further and said that Arafat’s record “discredits any statement he could make about the Arab-Israeli crisis.”

              These two responses are a perfect illustration of the problem the PLO faces. While it is quite true that it would have been better if Arafat has signed the piece—or, still better, if, as Hoagland suggested, the PLO were to abandon its covenant—it remains the case that the Abu Sharif piece is a remarkable expression of Palestinian reasonableness and willingness to make peace with Israel. And it was issues by Arafat’s press spokesman.

              The essay is a challenge to American and Israelis to meet the PLO halfway. Abu Sharif wrote that the Palestinians “understand the Jewish people’s centuries of suffering.” He said that the Palestinians want “lasting peace and security for themselves and the Israelis because no one can build his future on the ruins of another’s.” Why must our journalists run interference for the Israeli government and turn this bright moment into another case of the “the PLO didn’t do enough” or “the PLO didn’t do it right?”

              Moreover, carping at the PLO obscures and even distorts the actual record of authoritative PLO positions. I take it that there is really only one major issue: Is the PLO prepared to live at peace with Israel? But if this is the issue, look at the record:


  • In 1982 in Fez, Morocco, the Arab nations, at Arafat’s urging, adopted a peace plan that embodied Resolution 242 by speaking of “guarantees for peace for all states of the region.” Since that time, the Palestine National Council, the most authoritative organ of the PLO, has regularly affirmed the Fez framework.
  • In 1985 Arafat signed a public agreement with King Hussein to seek peace negotiations based on the key principle of the Reagan plan: the exchange of territory for peace.
  • In 1986 the PLO transmitted to the U.S. State department three formulas whereby it would explicitly accept Resolutions 242 and 338 if the United States affirmed a Palestinian right to self-determination.
  • In 1987, at the 18th PNC meeting, the PLO reaffirmed its willingness to participate in an international peace conference.
  • On Sept. 7, 1987, at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Geneva, Arafat formally affirmed a willingness to have 242 and 228 be part of the basis for the international conference.
  • On Sept. 10, 1987, Israel’s largest paper quoted Arafat as saying, “ I want to negotiate with my enemies…in order to reach a just and comprehensive peace.”
  • On March 20, 1988, the Jerusalem Post quoted Arafat as saying he was “ready to negotiate with the Israeli government in an international conference.” It further quoted him as saying, “Naturally that means recognition [of Israel]—is that clear enough?”


Three months later came the Abu Sharif piece. When Shamir said that is “nothing new,” in a way he was correct. The PLO has for at least six years been regularly providing both the Israeli government and the U.S. government with opportunities to open a dialogue, to start a process of mutual recognition and to explore through negotiations whether a peace treaty can be reached.

Without fail, the Israelis and the American have ignored these openings. Regrettably, it looks like the Abu Sharif essay will come one more chapter in this sad story. But rather than focusing on the real shortcomings of PLO tactics and style of operation, let us put the onus where it belongs. It is the United States and Israel that have proved intransigent.