Israeli government officials and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and West Bank Palestinians are talking to each other through intermediaries in Cairo, Rep. Wayne Owens believes, and the outcome could be promising.
Leaders of Israel's government have constantly refused to meet officially, face-to-face, with the PLO.Owens, D-Utah, is assigned to the Mideast as part of his U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee work. He's visited the Middle East half a dozen times the last several years.
Speaking at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Owens said Friday he believes the Cairo meetings are significant, although he admits he doesn't know what the parties are discussing.
"I understand the meetings are between the Israeli ambassador to Egypt (the go-between), whom I know well, two members of the PLO, one of whom I know well, two Palestinians from the West Bank, one of whom I know, and the U.S. ambassador (to Egypt)," Owens said.
The congressman returned from the Mideast just two weeks ago. Earlier this year he met at length with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis.
Owens says he's optimistic about peace in the Middle East, although that optimism sometimes flies in the face of daily developments in the region.
The Cairo meetings may be concerning elections in the territories occupied by the Israelis. Palestinians in the occupied territories have been rioting for a year, and the Israeli army has used force in an attempt to stop the disturbances. More than 300 Palestinians have died and thousands injured.
Owens said he remains a strong supporter of Israel and doesn't favor reducing any of the $3 billion in aid the United States gives to the small, Jewish state.
But, he added, the Israeli government must change its attitude to the Palestinian uprising and to a Palestinian homeland.
At times choking with emotion, Owens said he's convinced Arabs and Jews in the area are sick of war and destruction. "They want peace. And the Palestinians and Israelis know they can live together in peace if only the politicians will give them the chance. More than 120,000 Palestinians work in Israel every day."
The first step in peace is for the Israeli government to talk directly with the PLO. Egypt is acting as the go-between in the Cairo meetings. But direct, fact-to-face meetings between Israeli government officials and the PLO must become the open, public policy of Israel, Owens said. "You can't separate the Palestinian uprising from the PLO."
Second, the way the Israeli army is dealing with the uprising must change. "I'm convinced" there are human rights abuses taking place, Owens said.
Ultimately, there must be elections in the occupied areas. Israel has agreed to this, although Arafat says Israel must withdraw from the territories before elections are held, Owens said.
Finally, Israel must give up non-strategic areas on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A confederate Jordan/Palestinian state could then be created. Jordan would provide the military for the Palestinian homeland. Jordan would also handle the official money supply. But there would be a separate Palestinian parliament, separate elections, Owens said.
"Politically, there can't be an independent Palestinian state now. Maybe that could come later. Only a confederate state with Jordan would work today, if even that could succeed."