WASHINGTON (Jun. 20)
President Bush’s announcement Wednesday suspending the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization was welcomed by Jewish organizations, even though it clearly left the door open for a possible resumption of the talks.
Bush suspended the dialogue as a result of the PLO’s refusal to clearly renounce the attempted May 30 terrorist attack on Israeli beaches by the Palestine Liberation Front, a PLO constituent group headed by Mohammed (Abul) Abbas. The United States had also called on the PLO to remove Abbas from its executive committee, which it refused to do.
The president announced his decision to cut off the talks during a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Huntsville, Ala.
“Based on the recommendation of the secretary of state, I have decided to suspend the dialogue between the United States and the PLO, pending a satisfactory response from the PLO of steps it is taking to resolve problems associated with the recent acts of terrorism,” the president said.
But he added that if “at any time the PLO is prepared to take the necessary steps, we are prepared to promptly resume the dialogue.”
Bush conceded that suspending the dialogue could further stall the effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But he said he had to “weigh the whole question” of the dialogue with the PLO’s failure to comply with its own commitment to renounce terrorism.
The size of the attack force that sought to hit beaches in the Tel Aviv area “strongly indicated that civilians would have been the target” had the attack succeeded, the president said.
PLO ‘COULD NOT AVOID RESPONSIBILITY’
Bush said that beginning the day after the thwarted attack, the United States told the PLO in Tunis “that it could not avoid responsibility for an attempted terrorist action by one of its constituent groups and needed to take steps to deal with this matter, by condemning the operation, disassociating itself from it, and by beginning to take steps to discipline Abul Abbas.”
The United States has “given the PLO ample time to deal with this issue,” but it has not “provided a credible accounting of this incident” nor acted on the U.S. demands, Bush said.
Praise for the administration action poured in from a number of Jewish organizations.
Most groups said that Bush’s announcement enhances American credibility, since the United States predicated its talks with the PLO on its renunciation of terrorism.
The suspension “restores American credibility and leadership in the war against worldwide terrorism,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which speaks for 46 national Jewish groups.
“Our country cannot lead such a campaign while holding ongoing discussions with the world’s most notorious terrorist organization in the face of blatant violations of the PLO’s commitments to end terrorism,” said Reich, who received a telephone call informing him of the U.S. decision Wednesday from Vice President Dan Quayle.
Arden Shenker, chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, sent a letter to Bush on Wednesday, commending the president for suspending the dialogue.
“The U.S. gave the PLO every opportunity to respond in a manner that would have enabled the dialogue to go forward. Their failure to do so left the U.S. with no alternative but to take this action,” wrote Shenker, whose organization represents national Jewish organizations and local community relations councils across the country.
But Rita Hauser, one of five American Jews who met two years ago with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, called the suspension “regrettable and unfortunate,” and a costly blow to the peace process.
“This will have a very negative effect on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They will view this as shutting the door in their face,” said Hauser, an attorney who chairs the American section of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.
‘WHITEWASHING’ OF PLO ACTIVITY
The group’s meeting with Arafat in Stockholm at the beginning of December 1988 is credited with helping to convince the PLO leader to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Shortly afterward, Arafat met the three U.S. conditions for speaking with the PLO, laid down in 1975 by Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state at the time. These were recognition of Israel’s right to exists, acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and renunciation of terrorism.
When Arafat recited this formula at a news conference in Geneva, the Reagan administration, in its final days of office, announced it would begin a dialogue with the PLO, to be conducted exclusively by its ambassador in Tunisia, Robert Pelletreau.
The United States maintains that the dialogue has facilitated the peace process by bringing about PLO acquiescence to a dialogue between Israel and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
That is why the administration has rejected charges, leveled for the past 18 months by Israel and members of Congress, that the PLO was still engaged in terrorism, despite Arafat’s promises.
Jewish leaders, in turn, had accused the State Department of “whitewashing” clear evidence of terrorist activity on the part of the PLO.
“It was increasingly our sense that the administration was so committed to the U.S.-PLO dialogue that they were ignoring reality,” said Kenneth Jacobson, Middle East affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
After the May 30 incident, pressure increased, with resolutions being introduced in the Senate and Houseof Representatives calling for a suspension of talks until the PLO condemned the thwarted attack and ousted Abbas.
Ambassador Pelletreau met at least six times with the PLO, in an attempt to get it to specifically renounce the attack.
But when the PLO executive committee met in Baghdad during the first week in June, it did not even discuss the matter. Last week, the PLO issued a statement saying it was a “against any military action which targets civilians.”
ISRAEL EXPRESSES ‘SATISFACTION’
Bush said Wednesday that this statement was not sufficient. He said while the dialogue has advanced the peace process, it is “based on the assumption that the PLO is willing to abide by the conditions it adopted in December 1988, including renunciation of terrorism.”
Asked if the break plays into the hands of hard-liners, Bush replied, “Yes, I’m concerned.” But he denied that the decision was done to placate Israel. He said it was consistent with the U.S. anti-terrorism policy.
The Israeli Embassy here expressed “satisfaction” with Bush’s decision, saying that the May 30 terrorist attack “is a reminder of the true nature of the PLO.”
“The PLO was and remains a terrorist organization that continues to practice terrorism in all forms against Jews and Arabs, and therefore is a serious threat and a major obstacle to any peace process in the Middle East,” Ruth Yaron, the embassy’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
“Israel believes that the administration’s decision will enhance and promote the peace process and will encourage those Palestinians seeking peace with Israel to seize upon this opportunity to begin a direct dialogue with Israel,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who in recent months has been critical of Israeli policies, said the president “made the right decision,” because the dialogue could not be continued “when any of the parties quite literally tries to hold a gun to the head of the other parties through the use of terrorism.”
Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), one of the leaders of the Senate movement urging a break with the PLO, said, “The president did the right thing for the fight against terrorism, for U.S. interests, for the freedom and security of our ally Israel, and for the search for peace in the Middle East.”
(JTA staff writer Allison Kaplan in New York contributed to this report.)