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Behind the Headlines the U.S. and the PLO

The Carter Administration’s attitude and relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization are under scrutiny and questioning again. The State Department insists there is no change in U.S. policy but many in the Congress are skeptical.

Much of the current situation stems from recent developments that include assertions by two State Department officials to a Congressional subcommittee that the U.S. can have “informal” contacts with the PLO without violating the U.S. agreement with Israel and from the waiver by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance of the restrictions to grant a visa in late March to Shofik Al-Hout, chief of the PLO’s Beirut operations, which enabled him to speak and travel freely in the U.S. for three weeks.

Another incident was the meeting by two Carter Administration officials with Al-Hout at a party at the Syrian Embassy on Syrian Nation Day.

SHIFT OF RESPONSIBILITY

As a result, the House last Wednesday modified the so-called McGovern Amendment by including the Solarz-Derwinski Amendment to the State Department’s authorization legislation. That puts direct responsibility for visas on the Secretary of State rather than on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Thursday did not take up the amendment sponsored by Reps. Stephen Solarz (D. NY) and Edward Derwinski (R. Ill.) in voting out the authorization money bill for the State Department for the coming fiscal year, but Sen. George McGovern (D. SD) made it clear that his measure was to support the Helsinki Accords and not to justify visas for PLO members. The matter, committee sources said, will be taken up on the Senate floor.

The Department contends that it acted on the Al-Hout visa under regulations other than the McGovern Amendment which it wants to remain law but Solarz pointed out that the Department invoked the McGovern measure in the past when it discussed visas for PLO members.

The Department has also insisted that Al-Hout personally is not a terrorist and is opposed to terrorism but it refused to say when and where he made such statements. The INS told JTA that the visa application is not protected by the privacy act and the State Department could reveal the application contents if it wished.

INFORMAL CONTACTS WITH PLO

At a hearing by the House Middle East subcommittee last Thursday led by Rep. Lee Hamilton (D. Ind.), Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders and the Department’s legal advisor, Herbert Hansell, contended that informal contacts with the PLO were theoretically possible without violating the assurances which the U.S. gave to Israel, in writing Sept. 1, 1975 as part of the second Sinai agreement.

Following up the Saunders-Hansell testimony, the State Department said Friday that “specifically” the assurances were that “the U.S. will not recognize nor negotiate with the PLO so long as the PLO does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and UN Security Council Resolution 242.” The Department also quoted President Carter’s statement to an Egyptian correspondent on March 22 that if the PLO is willing to accept those two conditions, the U.S. will “immediately start working directly with that organization as such.”

This aroused anger among Israelis who agreed that the language in the 1975 accord is negotiation and recognition but “the spirit of it was for the U.S. not to have contacts of any kind with the PLO.”

When Saunders at the subcommittee hearing described Al-Hout as “a relative moderate in the spectrum of the PLO” who is not “personally involved in terrorism, ” Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R. NJ) retorted, “That’s like picking out one from a group of gangsters because he says he doesn’t kill on Sunday.” She said “We shouldn’t talk to the PLO at all.”

State Department spokesman Thomas Reston said it is necessary to “apply a little bit of common sense” to the circumstances like dealing with the PLO an administrative matters such as granting visas for the United Nations meetings. “When somebody appears in front of you and sticks out his hand in a pure amenity sense–sure we’ve shaken hands but there is no substantive message that we mean to convey by shaking hands.”

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