WASHINGTON -- The United States will open direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Secretary of State George Shultz announced Wednesday, dramatically shifting the Middle East equation and opening a split between the United States and Israel.
Shultz, revealing the decision made by President Reagan, said statements made by PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Geneva earlier in the day had met longstanding U.S. demands for opening a 'substantive dialogue.'
The secretary said the declaration made it clear the Palestinian group 'accepts U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and to renounce terrorism. As a result, the United States is prepared for a substantive dialogue with the PLO.'
While Shultz was meeting with reporters at the State Department, the White House issued a statement from Reagan that said, 'The objective of the United States remains, as always, a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. In that light, we view this development as one more step toward the beginning of direct negotiations between the parties, which alone can lead to such a peace.'
In repeating the United States' 'special commitment to Israel's security and well-being is unshakeable,' Reagan said, 'Indeed, a major reason for our entry into this dialogue is to help Israel achieve the recognition and security it deserves.'
And Reagan warned, 'The PLO, in particular, must live up to its statement. It must demonstrate its commitment to renunciation of terrorism is permanent and pervasive.'
Shultz said the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Pelletreau -- a career Foreign Service official and longtime participant in the Middle East negotiations -- is 'the only authorized channel' for the dialogue and has been told to make himself available for talks with the PLO.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington, after hearing an advance version of the Shultz statement, said, 'We regret the decision of the U.S. government to enter into direct contact with the PLO. We do not consider this will advance the peace process in the Middle East.'
But Reagan said he sees the forthcoming dialogue, reversing a U.S. policy established in 1975, as 'an important step in the peace process' -- the more so because it represents the 'serious evolution of Palestinian thinking toward a realistic and pragmatic position on the key issues.'
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was unable to say when the talks might begin and said, 'At this point we have no idea' about the way they will be conducted.
Diplomatic officials said the United States gave the exact language it wanted to hear from Arafat to Swedish Foreign Minister Sven Andersson, who relayed it to Arafat.
Andersson has served as the go-between for the United States and the PLO for several days, officials said, adding that Sweden was the only channel used to communicate with the PLO.
Shultz emphasized that the opening of talks 'should not be taken as recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The position of the United States is the status of the West Bank and Gaza (territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War) cannot be determined by unilateral acts by either side.'
He added, 'It is also important to emphasize that the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel remains unflinching.'
The dramatic announcement Wednesday evening followed a speech Tuesday and follow-up news conference Wednesday by Arafat in Geneva, where he address a United Nations General Assembly meeting held in the Swiss city because Shultz had refused the PLO leader a visa to visit New York on the grounds he is a terrorist.
At Wednesday's meeting with reporters, Arafat cleared up what U.S. officials had called 'ambiguous and fuzzy' declarations in his speech.
It was not clear precisely which declaration by Arafat tipped the balance of the Washington decision-making process, but he did appear to be scripted. He read some remarks from a piece of paper and repeated himself several times urging reporters to quote him directly.
At one point, bearing on Israel's right to exist, he said, 'Self-determination means survival for the Palestinians and our survival does not destroy the survival of the Israelis as their leaders claim.'
At another, he said, 'I declare before you, and I ask you to kindly quote me, that we want peace. We want peace. We are committed to peace. We are committed to peace. We want to live in our Palestinian state and let live.'
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Under questioning by reporters in the State Department briefing room, Shultz denied he had changed his position.
'I didn't change my mind. ... They made their statement clear so that it doesn't have the ambiguities that earlier statements had, which tended to allow various people to give them their own interpretations,' Shultz said.
A resolution of the 'Palestinian problem' has proved an elusive, but obviously essential, component of an over-all Middle East peace.
The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians -- primarily waged with acts of brutality by both sides -- has roots in the establishment of the Jewish state itself 40 years ago on land the Palestinians have long claimed as theirs. The PLO, a coalition of often-warring groups, banded together in 1964 with the chief goal being the elimination of Israel.
During this decade, Israel, aiming to secure its border with Lebanon to the north, invaded that nation in June 1982 to clear out the PLO, chasing Arafat's organization to Tunis.
Last December, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza rebelled against the Israeli occupation. The fighting -- known there by the Arabic word for uprising, 'intifadah' -- has continued with hundreds killed or wounded and was the major issue in the Israeli elections in November.
Administration officials, including Vice President George Bush, had been pressed on what it was Arafat had failed to say in his Tuesday speech, which reportedly had been tailored to meet U.S. demands.
At mid-afternoon, Bush repeated several times that he expected Arafat to make 'unambiguous' statements satisfying the U.S. conditions.
'I want it so no one can argue with what was said,' Bush said. 'I want to see that loud, defined and clear.'
Administration officials disclosed that the decision-making process had worked its way through the day, starting with and early morning meeting between the president and his national security adviser, Colin Powell.
At an early afternoon meeting that included Shultz, Powell and the president, it was decided 'we would open a dialogue if conditions were met,' one official said.
In late afternoon, Shultz reported to Powell on Arafat's statement and said the department had concluded that it 'met the conditions' of the United States. That word was conveyed to Reagan, who made the decision to announce the new U.S. stand.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who first put the United States on record as refusing to talk to the PLO unless the Palestinians recognized the right of Israel to exist, was in the White House Wednesday. Fitzwater said Kissinger was there to discuss the transition to the Bush administration and also had a brief chat with Reagan, but the Middle East was not discussed.