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Knesset Gives Preliminary Ok to Bill on Contact with the PLO

The Knesset gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill lifting a 6-year-old ban on contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The bill passed its first reading by a razor-thin margin of 37-36. It now goes to committee and must pass two more readings in the house before becoming law.

In introducing the bill Wednesday, Justice Minister David Libai stressed the move implies no change in the government’s opposition to a direct PLO role in Middle East peace negotiations.

Moreover, he said, Jerusalem expects the United States will continue to exclude the PLO from the peace talks.

But politicians of the opposition Likud bloc differed sharply during parliamentary debate on the bill.

Knesset member Binyamin Netanyahu said the move was tantamount to government endorsement of “a body whose declared purpose is the destruction of Israel.”

He said it would pave the way for a resumption of talks between the United States and the PLO and “undermine the basis of Israel’s objection to the creation of a Palestinian state.”

But Laborites argued that there is no “national security” justification for the ban and that it contravenes the principles of democracy.

The ban on meetings with the PLO “has nothing to do with state security and places restrictions on the freedom of the individual,” Libai told foreign correspondents shortly before submitting the bill to the Knesset plenum.

The justice minister pointed out that the current law allows the government to have contacts with the PLO or any other terrorist organization, but that anyone else is subject to prosecution for a criminal offense.

In reality, Knesset members who have met with the PLO have enjoyed parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Those involved in peace negotiations who have met with the PLO have not Leen tried because the government does “not want to impede the peace process,” Libai said.

On the other hand, he said, peace activists such as Abie Nathan and David Ish- Shalom have been prosecuted for meeting with PLO officials — and, in Nathan’s case, have gone to jail — despite the fact that they clearly intended no harm to Israeli security.

As the law now stands, an individual who believes meeting someone else might improve the chances for peace is not allowed to do so, Libai observed.

“This amounts to trying to force a political view on individuals,” he said. If the government is permitted such contacts, he asked, why should not those in opposition, or any other individuals, also be allowed to do so?

The proposed bill would still allow the government to prosecute people who have contact with a member of a terror organization if they cannot provide a “reasonable explanation” for such a meeting. To convict such a person, the prosecution must also prove an intent to harm state security.

The government’s support for the bill does not mean it is changing its policy toward the PLO, Libai said. He said the government still regards the Tunis- based organization as an obstacle to peace.

“Without the PLO,” he said, “there is a much better chance of making progress. That’s why we also expect the U.S. government to leave the PLO outside the negotiations.”

But Likud Knesset member Michael Eitan argued that the bill’s message is that Israel is moving toward negotiations with the PLO.

Indeed, Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg expressed hope that the Cabinet would “soon hold a sincere and profound and courageous debate over whether to talk to people whom the Palestinian people regard as their legitimate representatives.”

And a member of the left-wing Meretz bloc raised the specter of being forced to deal with militant Islamic fundamentalists.

“If we don’t negotiate with the PLO today,” said Knesset member Naomi Chazan, “then we will find ourselves face-to-face with Hamas.”

Wednesday’s preliminary vote was close because all five members present from the fervently Orthodox Shas party, which is part of the governing coalition, voted against the bill as “punishment” for the government’s insistence on going ahead earlier in the day with a bill legalizing prostitution.

The government, in fact, came near to losing the vote. The opposition laid a carefully planned “trap” involving five opposition members pretending to leave for the night and hiding in their parked cars.

The remaining Likud members then all withdraw their names from the roster of speakers scheduled to debate the bill, and the Knesset speaker then called the vote. The five “missing” members suddenly appeared and the coalition found itself lacking a majority.

Likud members later accused Speaker Shevah Weiss of deliberately dragging out the proceedings to give absent Laborites time to return to the house.

In the end, Tourism Minister Uzi Baram’s last-minute arrival from Tel Aviv saved the government’s face, and the bill.

Political observers expected renewed tension within the coalition as a result of the Shas vote.

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