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Jewish Leaders Confer in Washington on PLO Move and Possible Arafat Visit

Representatives of American Jewish groups urged Swiss and U.S. officials Monday to thwart the Palestine Liberation Organization’s latest drive to become a signatory to the Geneva Conventions.

According to participants in the talks, the Jewish leaders also urged the State Department to deny PLO leader Yasir Arafat an entry visa to the United States if he seeks to address the United Nations General Assembly session in New York this fall.

Two other issues discussed during a one-hour meeting with top aides to State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer were the status of the 8-month-old U.S. dialogue with the PLO and the anti-Israel political program adopted earlier this month by Arafat’s Al Fatah branch of the PLO.

Prior to the State Department session, the Jewish representatives met at the Swiss Embassy with the deputy chief of mission, Christian Blickenstorfer, and legal counselor Kurt Hoechner to discuss Switzerland’s handling of an application filed by the PLO last month to sign onto the Geneva Conventions.

Switzerland is the administering country for the Geneva Conventions, which are a series of international treaties that cover, among other things, the treatment of prisoners of war, those wounded or killed in battle, as well as civilians under military occupation.

Switzerland is required to inform all signatory nations in writing when a state asks to adhere to the conventions.

Normally, states seeking to sign on are automatically accepted.

RED CROSS SUPPORTING BID

In May, Switzerland rejected the PLO’s first application, arguing that it was incorrectly filed. But the latest one, filed in July, has been deemed proper.

Nevertheless, Blickenstorfer said Tuesday that Switzerland believes the PLO “definitely cannot” become a party to the accords, because it is not a state.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, which helps implement the treaty and which receives U.S. funds, is supporting the PLO’s bid.

While U.S. officials have not said they would reduce U.S. contributions to the ICRC should the PLO become a party to the treaty, there may be an “implicit” threat, said Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

A well-placed State Department official denied any implicit or explicit threat to cut off funds, but added, “People can’t help be aware” of the possible consequences of including the PLO.

The U.S. government has actively fought the PLO’s efforts to join several other international bodies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Its threat to cut off funds to the health body is credited with pressuring the agency to postpone consideration of admitting the PLO this spring.

Also high on the agenda of the State Department meeting was discussion of Arafat’s possible plans to enter the United States.

An official at the PLO’s observer mission to the United Nations in New York said Arafat “most probably” will seek a visa to attend the U.N. General Assembly session, which runs from September to December.

No application has yet been filed, and administration officials will not publicly discuss visa cases until a ruling is made.

A CHALLENGE FOR U.S. POLICY

The American Jewish officials expressed concern that if Arafat were allowed to enter the country, he would be able to go on a speaking tour around the United States or even be invited to meet with President Bush or Secretary of State James Baker.

Two weeks ago, Jewish leaders told Bush that they oppose “in principle” granting a visa for Arafat to speak at the United Nations, one of six Jewish leaders at that White House meeting has confirmed.

Arafat last received a U.S. visa in 1974, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly, wearing a gun holster that reportedly was empty.

Last year, George Shultz, who was secretary of state at the time, rejected Arafat’s application to make a return appearance to the world body, on the grounds that Arafat has overseen PLO elements that “have engaged in terrorism against Americans and others.”

In an unprecedented move, the United Nations held a special General Assembly session in Geneva, where Arafat publicly renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist. His statements led to the establishment of a U.S. dialogue with the PLO in December.

An Arafat visa application would force the United States to decide whether the PLO leader should still be regarded as a terrorist.

DECISION ON POLITICAL GROUNDS

Last year, the State Department said it would evaluate any Arafat application with “severe scrutiny.” It has yet to use that phrase this time around.

Hordes of ADL predicted that any visa request would be evaluated on political grounds, and not legal ones.

He said administration lawyers could find legal reasons to base either acceptance or rejection of an Arafat visa application.

He argued that if Arafat sends a clear signal to West Bank Palestinians that they can pursue the Israeli peace plan, then the Bush administration would look favorably on a visa application.

“If that doesn’t happen, then it’s less clear,” he said.

In addition to Hordes, Jewish participants in the State Department meeting included Steven Rosen of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, George Gruen of the American Jewish Committee, Phil Baum and Mark Pelavin of the American Jewish Congress, Kenneth Jacobson of ADL and Martin Raffel of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

They met with Ken McKune, deputy director of Israel and Arab-Israeli affairs; Alan Kreczko, deputy legal adviser; Bruce Rashkow, assistant legal adviser for U.N. affairs; and Aaron David Miller of the policy-planning staff.

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