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Bush Administration Officials Deny They Are Still Actively Courting PLO

Bush administration officials have denied a report that the United States is still actively trying to persuade the Palestine Liberation Organization to meet U.S. conditions for a resumption of the dialogue President Bush suspended last month.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the administration is engaged in a secret initiative to convince the PLO to punish the perpetrators of the May 30 terrorist attack on Israeli beaches near Tel Aviv, which was foiled by Israeli soldiers.

The paper said the United States has informed PLO leader Yasir Arafat, through Egypt, that the 18-month dialogue can be resumed if he disciplines Mohammed (Abul) Abbas, whose Palestine Liberation Front carried out the aborted attack.

But administration officials said Thursday that the United States had not conveyed any messages to the PLO through Egypt. “We did not use and we are not using the Egyptians to send messages to the PLO at the moment,” said one official.

Rather, it appears that Egypt is relaying the substance of its conversations with the United States to the PLO, though not as direct U.S. requests.

For example, Arafat was briefed on discussions Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid held in Washington last week with Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. Meguid had rushed to Washington after Bush spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by phone.

The meeting was “precipitated by the rupture in the dialogue” with the PLO, an Egyptian Embassy official confirmed.

Administration officials also deny the Post’s contention that the United States has “slightly softened” the president’s conditions for resuming the dialogue.

NO PNC MEETING TILL NOVEMBER

According to the Post report, Egypt has told the PLO that the United States would be prepared to resume the dialogue if Arafat ousted Abbas from the PLO executive committee.

Even if this is true, it is not likely to happen, at least in the near future.

Arafat claims Abbas can only be ousted by the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislative body, which is not scheduled to meet again until November.

Arafat feels he does “not unilaterally have the organizational authority to expel him from the executive committee,” a U.S. official said.

Another official said, “We’ve seen no indication that they’ve tried to get a meeting together,” adding that convening a special meeting by the PNC would be viewed as “bowing to U.S. pressure.”

Meanwhile, European governments, as well as other Arab governments, are continuing to pressure the PLO to take conciliatory steps, a State Department official said.

But the United States has not asked any of them to apply the pressure, the official said. Rather, those countries are “anxious” for the dialogue to be restored, because they view it as a “necessary step in moving the peace process,” the official explained.

Egypt, too, has a major stake in resumption of the dialogue.

Egypt has been serving as the primary channel between the United States and the PLO, even though until last month, U.S. officials were engaged in direct talks with PLO officials in Tunis.

As the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, ranking only behind Israel, Egypt would like to continue serving a constructive role in the peace process by mediating between the United States and the Palestinians.

Moreover, as the only Arab state to have made peace with Israel, Egypt would like to demonstrate that moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict can have dividends for the Arab world.

By contrast, the United States views the dialogue in Tunisia as “just an adjunct to the peace process,” an administration official said.

To the United States, “the dialogue helped encourage the PLO to permit that process to take place without serving as a spoiler,” he explained.

According to the official, without the dialogue, the peace process “could continue, although it will probably be more difficult, given that we don’t have that pressure point.”

Similarly, Helena Cobban, visiting peace fellow at George Mason University and an expert on the PLO, said, “The peace process is not contingent on there being direct modes of communication between the United States and the PLO.”

She did not rule out the possibility that Arafat would unilaterally try to expel Abbas.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t be the first politician in the world to find his way around constitutional difficulties,” she said.

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