LONDON (Oct. 14)
Britain’s independent initiative over the Arab-Israeli conflict disintegrated in total fiasco today when the government abruptly scrapped talks it was to have held with two senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Sir Geoffrey Howe, Foreign Secretary, called off the meeting after his two Palestinian guests, Mohammed Milhem and Bishop Elias Khoury, refused to give an unconditional renunciation of violence in pursuing the ambitions of the Palestinian people. The two PLO men were here in a joint delegation with two Jordanian ministers.
The farcical last-minute cancellation of the meeting with Howe was the latest in the series of events surrounding the Palestinian capture of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, the murder of an American Jewish passenger, and the subsequent midair capture of the four hijackers.
The cancellation was received here with quiet satisfaction by Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Avner. Later he described the PLO visitors as representatives of the godfathers of international terrorism. The PLO visit had seriously strained UK-Israeli relations. But following this morning’s dramatic development there is now a much better climate for the visit which Israeli Premier Shimon Peres is due to make to London early next year.
ARABS INCENSED BY BRITAIN’S ACTION
The Arab world, by contrast, is incensed by what it sees as Britain’s total submission to pressure by the United States and Israel. Unless Britain moves quickly to contain the diplomatic damage, it is feared here that British citizens and property will be increasingly vulnerable to Arab terrorist action.
The two PLO men were invited to London last month by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her visit to Jordan. At the time, she said she had done so after receiving assurances that Milhem and Bishop Khoury were committed to peaceful methods of advancing the Palestinian cause and the renunciation of terrorism.
She maintained this position in the face of pleas by Israel that both men had been implicated in terrorist incidents. When told last week of Khoury’s expulsion for smuggling explosives into Israel, she snapped back: “Then why wasn’t he charged?”
INQUIRY INTO FOREIGN OFFICE ADVICE EXPECTED
In the wake of the severe embarrassment she has been caused, the Prime Minister is expected to demand a searching inquiry into the quality of the advice she and Foreign Secretary Howe have been receiving from the Foreign Office.
Thatcher is already known for her deep distrust of the Foreign Office. She blamed it for the surprise with which Britain was taken four years ago by the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. The fact that she was persuaded to follow the Foreign Office’s advice on the Middle East in the last few weeks is attributed here to her close trust in Howe.
In Britain, too, the cancellation of the talks is expected to be welcomed not only in the Jewish community but among the Prime Minister’s own traditional middle-of-the-road and rightwing supporters who, judging by press comment, had been most vocal in their opposition to the PLO visit.