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Growing Momentum in Israel’s Ruling Party for Talks with PLO

July 16, 1993

JERUSALEM (AP) _ ″Who is against talking to the PLO?,″ a legislator from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party asked about 35 colleagues in a meeting this week.

Only one hand went up.

The informal poll illustrates the growing push in Israel’s governing party toward negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization as the only way to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace talks.

Advocates of talking to the PLO leadership say the Palestinian negotiators in Washington are middlemen without authority, and only PLO chief Yasser Arafat can offer concessions and make a deal.

″The Palestinian negotiators all get their instructions from Tunis, and in general, mediators take a cut,″ said Labor legislator Rafi Edri, who asked for the show of hands at the Labor meeting.

″I’d prefer to talk directly to Tunis, without paying the cut.″

The PLO, long branded a terrorist organization by Israel, has its headquarters in the Tunisian capital.

The doves in Israel today have a majority in the 18-member Cabinet and among the 62 coalition legislators. They have not yet dared to challenge Rabin openly over the issue, but a showdown seems inevitable if there is no breakthrough soon in the talks.

In the meantime, the doves are exerting increasing pressure on Rabin to soften his opposition to negotiations with the PLO.

Right after Rabin took office last year, they raised the issue in the Cabinet, a historic first. Months later, they pushed a bill through Parliament lifting the ban on meetings with the PLO, though Rabin initially tried to delay the vote.

And they make sure the issue remains at the center of public debate here.

This week, a government source leaked to an Israeli newspaper that a senior Israeli official has been meeting secretly with PLO leaders, and that the contacts have Rabin’s blessing.

Akiva Eldar, political commentator for the Haaretz daily, said the motivation of the leak ″was to impose the PLO on Rabin, to put the issue on the public agenda and to embarrass Rabin.″

Rabin’s office issued a lukewarm denial, but the story was the main topic on talk shows and in editorials.

Rabin believes that if he accepts the PLO as a negotiating partner, Arafat will demand talking about a Palestinian state immediately, instead of moving slowly in two stages, with Palestinian self-rule as an interim settlement.

″Once you sit with Yasser Arafat, he will say, No. 1 Palestinian state, No. 2 its capital Jerusalem and No. 3 the right of return″ by Palestinian refugees, Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a Rabin ally, told The Associated Press.

Rabin believes Arafat has no interest in Palestinian autonomy because it would strengthen an independent leadership in the occupied lands that could become a serious rival to the PLO.

Rabin’s critics counter that Arafat has an interest in seeing the talks succeed quickly, even with autonomy as an interim step, because the PLO’s Muslim fundamentalist rivals feed on failure and every day without agreement strengthens them.

A new element of the Israeli public debate is its pragmatism, considering that for years the PLO was reviled as enemy No. 1, a ruthless terror organization bent on destroying the Jewish state.

Today, the argument has shifted from ″whether″ to ″when″ to talk to the PLO. Even Rabin does not rule out eventual negotiations. He just says the time is not right yet.

Journalist Amnon Levy, describing this week’s meeting of Labor legislators, noted that those opposed to talking to the PLO cited tactical, not ideological reasons.

″The terrible hostility that once was there against the man with the stubble on his face has disappeared,″ Levy wrote.

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