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Israel Backs Down on Threat to Arrest Palestinians After U.S. Intervenes

The United States intervened with Israel and the Palestinians over the weekend to avoid inflammatory acts that could derail the peace talks that began last October in Madrid.

As a result, Israel has backed off from its threat to arrest key Palestinian negotiators who met in Jordan on Thursday with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel would “take account” of these provocative meetings in its future dealings with Dr. Khaider Abdul Shafi, head of the Palestinian negotiating team, and his advisers, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.

The three Palestinian leaders were photographed in Amman kissing and embracing Arafat, in a scene calculated to give the impression that the people who are talking to Israel look upon Arafat as their leader.

Despite reports that the Palestinian negotiators have been in contact with Arafat previously, this was the first public meeting between them.

It was an affront to Israel, which has vowed never to negotiate with the PLO, directly or indirectly. It occurred the weekend before the Israeli national elections, in which Likud is locked in a neck-in-neck race with the rival Labor Party.

AWKWARD SITUATION FOR SHAMIR

Right-wing activists, Likud’s core constituency, clamored for the arrest of the Palestinians the moment they set foot on Israeli soil, placing Shamir in a politically awkward situation.

On Sunday, Shamir promised that the Palestinian negotiators would be dealt with on their return to Israel in accordance with the law and with whatever procedures are prescribed by Attorney-General Yosef Harish.

Israeli law makes it a criminal offense to have contacts with a terrorist organization, as the PLO is categorized. Violators can face prison terms.

Government sources have made clear, however, that the Palestinians will probably be served summonses to appear before police investigators. “They won’t be arrested, they’ll be investigated,” a police spokesperson said, leaving open the option of legal steps at a later date.

The sources indicated privately that the United States advised Israel not to exacerbate the affair by making arrests. It advised the three Palestinians not to cause further provocation by returning to Israel before the elections Tuesday.

Foreign Minister David Levy on Sunday praised the “unequivocal position” taken by the United States in the matter. He referred to a State Department statement Friday which reiterated the U.S. position that “the PLO is not part of the peace process.”

Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States had “conveyed its concerns” over the meetings to the Palestinians.

Husseini, a resident of East Jerusalem, is barred by Israel from being part of the negotiating team. But many observers believe he is its de facto boss. Ashrawi, who lives in the West Bank, is not a member of the team but serves as its official spokeswoman.

Abdul Shafi, from the Gaza Strip, is the official head of the Palestinian contingent, which is itself part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating panel engaged in periodic talks with Israel during the last nine months.

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