Why I Met With Yasir Arafat


Washington Jewish Weekly, July 23, 1987


A few weeks ago, I represented Washington Area Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (WAJIPP) in meetings with Yasir Arafat and other leaders of the PLO. Two other organizations, New Jewish Agenda and the Ameri­can-Israeli Council for Israeli-Pales­tinian Peace, were also represented. I believe this was the first time that American Jewish organizations sent a delegation to meet with Arafat. What was the point of the trip? What did we learn? What was ac­complished?

            For the last several years, I have closely followed the zigs and zags of I efforts to begin peace negotiations. I have been particularly struck by the changes that have taken place in PLO willingness to enter a peace process. To cite two major steps: In February of 1985, Arafat and King Hussein entered into an agreement to jointly seek a negotiated set­tlement to the conflict with Israel. The first principle they agreed upon was the exchange of “land-for-peace.” This is essentially the basis on which Sadat negotiated.

            Secondly, in February of 1986, the PLO conveyed to the United States an offer to explicitly accept UN Resolution 242 if the United States would accept the principle of Palestinian self-determination. Thus, the PLO moved toward mu­tuality, reversing 40 years of Palestinian unwillingness to accept a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

            I went to Tunis convinced that the PLO had gone through a major evolution and that if they were met half-way, the basis for a settlement could be found. This belief was confirmed in our discussions. For instance, I asked PLO Foreign Min­ister Farouk Khadoumi: “If negotia­tions result in the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, would this mean the end to armed struggle with Israel?” Without hesitation he said “Yes!”

            You do not make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. The PLO is a party to the conflict; must be a party to the peace. It is in Israel’s interest to draw the PLO into a process of negotiations. Neither the United States nor Israel should be imposing pre-conditions for negotiations with the PLO. If after all these years, the PLO is now prepared to sit down and discuss peace with Israel, we should say, “It’s about time.” We should not be specifying hoops they must jump through. The past holds great ugliness and horror; nothing that can be said now will change any of that. The issue is whether we seize an opportunity for peace, or whether we let it slip by.

            I am not an optimist with re­spect to the Middle East. I believe that either there will be a set­tlement with the PLO or there will ultimately be another war. I do not believe that the Israeli-Egyptian peace will last forever if there is no peace with the Palestinians. So far the Camp David accords have given Israel nine years; they have not been used wisely.

            In Israel and in the United States the governments are para­lyzed. In part this it through their own doing. Because they have so thoroughly emphasized the demonization of the PLO, they are now faced with a public opinion which makes it exceedingly difficult to further encourage the PLO evolu­tion. In both democracies, the prospects of elections make the politicians and statesmen fearful of being caught in a trap by their rivals.

            In Israel, delegations such as ours, which have met with PLO officials, are on trial and face prison terms. The Israeli government baa made Jewish-PLO dialogue illegal. In the United States, leading poli­ticians, with little thought for Is­rael’s real interests and with contempt for the Jewish commu­nity, have sponsored legislation to close PLO offices in this country.

            The trip had many purposes, but the most important was to counter this atmosphere of demonization and to join those Israelis now on trial in initiating a dialogue which politicians are too cowardly to undertake themselves.