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U.s.-israeli Relations Strained over Talks with Senior PLO Official

The perceived upgrading of the American dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization and reports that President Bush is frustrated with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s rejection of territorial compromise have put new strains on U.S.-Israeli relations.

Israel and American Jewish organizations have reacted angrily to reports that Robert Pelletreau, the U.S. ambassador to Tunis, has met at least twice with Salah Khalaf, reputedly the highest-ranking official of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Chairman Yasir Arafat.

Pelletreau was designated to be the sole American diplomatic channel to the PLO when the United States opened a dialogue with it for the first time in December 1988.

Since then, the American envoy has met with relatively low-level PLO officials in Tunis.

In Washington, the State Department acknowledged Friday that Pelletreau has had at least two sessions with Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, who is security chief of Al Fatah, the largest fighting unit under the PLO umbrella.

Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler defended the meetings as a legitimate part of the American peace effort, but denied that Washington had upgraded the dialogue.

She said many of Pelletreau’s contacts with PLO officials were at informal gatherings, and presumably outside the dialogue framework.

Israeli officials were quick to point out that Khalaf was indicted in absentia in Italy only last week for smuggling arms to the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups 10 years ago.

BUSH SAID TO HAVE BANGED TABLE

Seymor Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, branded Khalaf a “notorious terrorist.”

He and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, linked Khalaf to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972; the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, and his deputy, George Moore, in 1973; and the murder of an American girl in Greece in 1973.

Reich charged that “Abu Iyad was brought into the dialogue with the PLO furtively and without informing Israel,” which “can only breed mistrust and cast suspicion on the depth of our country’s longstanding commitment to Israel.”

He also expressed concern that expanding the dialogue “to include one of the most vicious murderers in the ranks of the PLO” would discourage moderate Palestinians from coming forward to discuss Israel’s peace proposals.

Ha’aretz reported Sunday that President Bush banged the table at a recent meeting with congressional supporters of Israel and said, “I do not understand that Shamir.”

According to Ha’aretz, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who visited Israel last week, reported the incident at a meeting in Jerusalem.

According to the report, the U.S. president lost his temper over Israel’s reported plans to expand Jewish settlements in the administered territories.

Meanwhile, aides to Foreign Minister Moshe Arens have told reporters that Israeli diplomats abroad have been instructed not to accept reports from the United States or other countries on contacts their officials have had with the PLO.

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