If the Palestine Liberation Organization has changed its ways as far as the United States government is concerned and has become an acceptable partner in discussions toward a Middle East settlement, then certainly no Palestinian guerrilla official better illustrates the PLO’s evolution than Yasser Arafat’s “special adviser” Bassam Abu Sharif.
Sharif’s reputation as the PLO’s most outspoken advocate of coexistence with Israel derives from the position paper he distributed in Algiers last June, stating that Palestinians wanted “lasting peace and security for themselves and the Israelis.” The paper quickly caught the attention of the State Department, European Diplomats, prominent American Jews, and many Israelis. A Palestinian official calls the paper “the main thing that broke the stagnant thinking within the PLO.” An American ambassador in the Middle East considers it the “first sign of the new Palestinian direction.”
What impressed some critics of the PLO was Abu Sharif’s unmistakably conciliatory tone toward the Israelis, and his acknowledgment that they had security concerns that could be accommodated by the PLO. To many who read the paper it seemed that a psychological barrier had been crossed. But Sharif also introduced important concessions—recognition of Israel along with its right to exist within secure borders and acceptance of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338—which were eventually adopted in November by the Palestine National Council and clarified in December by Arafat’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly and his press conference immediately afterward.
Abu Sharif wrote last June that Palestinians wanted an independent state, and he appealed to Israelis for direct negotiations on a settlement that would “stand the test of time.” If Israelis questioned whether Palestinians regarded the PLO as their representative, he wrote, the PLO would agree to an internationally supervised election in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and abide by the results if non-PLO representatives were chosen. And if the Israeli army withdrew from the occupied territories, he added, the PLO would agree to a mutually acceptable transition period, in which the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be administered by an international force created by the UN.
While the proposals were a notable departure from the PLO’s previous official policies, they also appeared to be a radical break with the author’s own past. Until 1987, Abu Sharif had spent twenty years as a staff member and then as a leading official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1967 by George Habash and supported by the Soviet Union. The PFLP became the PLO faction most dedicated to Israel’s destruction and most ready to back up its words with deeds. The most visible exponents of Palestinian extremism during the 1960s, Habash’s men started hijacking commercial airliners in 1968 almost as a routine tactic.
Abu Sharif’s own involvement in terrorism became clear in September 1970, when at twenty-four he emerged as a spokesman—using the code name “Abu Bassam”—during one …