Why did the PLO suddenly decide, in 1988, that Israel had a right to exist?
US policy, first formulated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975, was to refuse to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) until it accepted certain conditions. These conditions for US contact with the PLO were set by Kissinger in a 1975 US-Israel memorandum of agreement. Kissinger promised that the United States:
- … will not recognize or negotiate with the PLO as long as the PLO does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and does not accept Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
This memorandum–and later the Camp David accords–conditioned any party’s participation at a peace conference on “the agreement of all the initial participants.” Thus, Israel could veto PLO presence. In later years, US Presidents frequently reiterated these commitments. In 1985 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed a law codifying them and adding that the PLO had to renounce the use of terrorism before the United States would “recognize or negotiate with [it].”
These conditions were designed to exclude a radical, terrorist PLO from any negotiations and to use US leverage to press it toward moderation. The PLO had to show that it had genuinely changed its position so as to make possible successful talks and a stable settlement. For more than a decade, however, the PLO had no interest in changing, and continued to use terrorism as its primary method of operation.
But by the late 1980s, the PLO found itself marginalized, forced to operate from Tunisia, far from the center of the action, trying to control the streets during the first intifada starting in 1987. Peace negotiations were in the air, but to participate Arafat and the PLO came to recognize that they had to satisfy the United States’ pre-conditions.
During the Shultz Peace Plan initiative in early 1988, the US was firm in blocking PLO participation until the minimal conditions were met. There was a danger to the PLO that Jordan would lead Palestinians at the proposed talks. Arafat acted on two fronts: he made sure no Palestinians would participate in the Shultz talks and he started a process that would meet the US conditions. By late 1988, Yasser Arafat believed that nothing was going to happen in the Middle East without the US and, somewhat overstated, he believed that the US could pressure Israel into an agreement they might not otherwise accept.
During 1988, secret channels and intermediaries were used to establish acceptable language for the PLO to use to satisfy the United States. Arafat’s next attempt to publically meet the US conditions was the Algiers Declaration of the Palestinian National Council in November 1988, a document based on the policy revisions discussed in the Cairo Declaration of November 7, 1985. Examining the Algiers declaration, the US government concluded that it fell short since the document did not explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist and was ambiguous on accepting the two UN resolutions and on terrorism. On November 26, 1988, Shultz rejected Arafat’s request for a visa to address the UN in New York because of the PLO’s continued involvement in terrorism against Americans.
The secret channel discussions continued. During November, a message giving a presidential pledge to start a dialogue if the PLO met the conditions was sent by National Security Advisor Colin Powell through a private individual meeting with PLO officials in Stockholm. Meeting with American Jewish activists there, Arafat hinted at willingness to meet this standard. In early December, Shultz said the Stockholm statement was not sufficient but again said there would be an immediate dialogue if Arafat did so.
When the United States denied Arafat a visa, the UN General Assembly voted to meet in Geneva, Switzerland. Arafat secretly pledged to the United States that he would fulfill its conditions in his December 13, 1988 address. But Arafat broke this promise and the United States found his statement unsatisfactory. To avoid losing the opportunity, Arafat went further at a press conference the next day, saying, “Our desire for peace is strategic and not a temporary tactic.” He went down the checklist:
- The PLO accepted UN Resolution 242
- The PLO promised recognition of Israel
- The PLO renounced terrorism
- We want peace…we are committed to peace, and we want to live in our Palestinian state and let others live.
Responding to the PLO’s public pledges of this policy change, Shultz quickly announced that the US conditions were met and a US-PLO dialogue began in Tunis. Those talks ultimately led to the 1991 Madrid Conference.
There was a working assumption in the United States that Arafat’s declaration of December 1988, in which he grudgingly recognized Israel and renounced terrorism, signified a long-term change PLO policy, and was not just tactical. Yet the inflamed rhetoric and violent activities of the PLO continued while Arafat talked peace. The US government was very reluctant to publically denounce the PLO for this duplicity lest the hard-won peace process be derailed. This US unwillingness to confront PLO reality had the effect of putting Israel on the defensive. Israeli actions to fight PLO terror could not be seen in proper context while the US refused to acknowledge the PLO’s terrorism as producing the defensive Israeli action.
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