Will the real Palestine Liberation Organization please stand up?

This week, the PLO's highest policy-making body issued what on the surface would seem to be a history-making declaration that renounces terrorism and recognizes for the first time Israel's right to exist.But don't start celebrating yet. It isn't clear yet whether the PLO's left hand knows what its right hand is doing.

Only a few weeks ago, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was still equating Zionism with racism and refusing to forswear the use of terrorism to gain Palestinian independence.

As recently as last June, other PLO leaders pointedly disavowed suggestions calling for a Palestinian state living in peace with a Jewish state.

So it's hard to believe the PLO has experienced such a sudden change of heart as this week's proclamation from the Palestinian National Council seems to suggest. In fact, even if accepted on its own terms, the proclamation leaves other credibility gaps.

Though the PLO professes to be trying to satisfy U.S. demands for a peace settlement, the proclamation unilaterally declares the existence of a Palestinian state in territory occupied by Israel. But this specifically contravenes U.S. policy that such matters are to be resolved not by unilateral action but by negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Moreover, the PLO statement does not specify which occupied areas would be given up and who would control them.

Despite such glaring problems, it would be a mistake to write the PLO declaration off as completely useless. As long as the PLO remains a loose amalgam of armed factions, it seems bound to be riven by divisions that limit the specificity and clarity of its policy statements.

There is some indication that the PLO may be growing more unified. Previously, various factions have pulled out of the PLO executive committee in protest against proposals to coexist peacefully with Israel. This time those factions stayed in line.

While this week's proclamation from the PLO falls far short of what's needed, it still could represent a move in the direction of the moderation that's essential if diplomacy is ever to replace the violence besetting the Middle East. It would be a mistake for Israel and the U.S. to dismiss the new declaration out of hand without finding out if it constitutes a genuine new policy position on the part of the PLO or just a new kind of propaganda.