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News Analysis: is Lifting of Ban on PLO Contacts First Step Toward Talks with Tunis?

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Israel’s move to lift the legal ban on meetings between its citizens and officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization is being viewed around the world as a major step toward eventual negotiations between the Jewish state and the PLO.

But the Israeli government takes exception to that view, even though it initiated a repeal of the ban and pushed it through the Knesset on a first reading last week by a majority of just one vote.

Government officials deny the move means an end to Israel’s longtime refusal to recognize the PLO as anything other than a terror group.

As Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin put it last Friday, in remarks to a European Parliament committee in Brussels, revocation of the ban “does not mean the government will meet the PLO tomorrow.”

But that, in fact, is how the move is being interpreted by the PLO in Tunis, Palestinian leaders in the territories, other Arab leaders, Western statesmen and Third World diplomats.

Even opposition members of the Knesset vigorously espoused that interpretation during the course of a rowdy, six-hour debate over the new legislation on Dec. 2.

“The message from Israel to the world on this black day,” declared Likud Knesset member Michael Eitan, “is that we have given legitimation to the PLO.”

And writing ruefully in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, Binyamin Netanyahu, a top contender for leadership of the Likud, said: “The British don’t talk to the IRA; the Germans and Italians don’t negotiate with their terrorists. Why should the Israeli government talk to the PLO?”

The Israeli government, for its part, insists it has no intention of negotiating with the PLO.

“The two matters — the law and the policy — are entirely unconnected,” Justice Minister David Libai of Labor, a former law professor, told the Knesset.

The Israeli government will not only refuse to deal with the PLO, it will continue to urge the United States to maintain its own diplomatic boycott of the organization, said Libai.

Nevertheless, he said, the existing ban is “a blot on the statute book of a democratic nation,” since it makes it a criminal offense for an Israeli citizen to have contact with a PLO official even if no damage to the security or the interests of the state is caused or intended.

As Libai spoke, human rights activist Abie Nathan, twice jailed for meeting with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, watched the Knesset proceedings from the distinguished visitors gallery.

Nathan, currently involved in a relief effort for the starving people of Somalia, had tears in his eyes.

“This day was worth every day I sat in prison,” he said when the preliminary vote was over. The bill must still pass two more readings before becoming law.

The ban on meetings with the PLO was imposed in 1986 by a Likud-Labor unity government as a counterweight to legislation outlawing the anti-Arab Kach Party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rectifying the Criminal Code now is no indication of a change of policy toward the PLO, Libai said.

The present government, like its predecessors, will refuse to negotiate peace with the PLO, which it regards as a terror organization whose goal is not a negotiated peace, he said.

The strength of the argument put forward by Libai was weakened, however, as it emerged during the debate that not only the opposition, but many members of the government coalition, failed to accept its logic.

A prominent Labor dove, Knesset Education Committee Chairman Avraham Burg, urged the government “to hold a courageous, deep and soul-searching discussion” on the need to negotiate with “those representatives of the Palestinian people whom the Palestinians themselves consider their legitimate representatives.”

And Naomi Chazan of the left-wing Meretz bloc, a leading political scientist who formerly headed the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, warned the government somberly: “If you do not negotiate with the PLO today, you will find yourselves opposite the (Islamic fundamentalist movement) Hamas tomorrow.”

Even as central a Labor Party figure as Knesset member Ori Orr, a former army general and now chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, referred in the debate to the “demonization” of the PLO in the minds of the Israeli public.

While Orr stopped short of advocating or even predicting eventual negotiations between Israel and the PLO, his comment appeared to open the way for that prospect.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself is known to be uncomfortable with the new legislation.

He permitted it to be introduced by the government because several of his own backbenchers, led by Yael Dayan, had threatened to introduce it as a private member’s bill. That would be an embarrassment to the Labor Party, which pledged in its election platform to abolish the existing ban.

But Rabin preferred not to be immortalized on film voting “for the PLO,” and so he stayed away from the Knesset for the whole day. In the end, this proved almost ruinous.

The Likud floor managers prepared an elaborate parliamentary ambush for Labor, by sending several of their members out of the building — and ostensibly home to bed — while, in fact, instructing them to hide in their darkened cars until the vote was called.

The “ambush squad” then promptly trooped back into the chamber, causing moments of intense palpitation to the coalition whips, as they saw their majority melting away.

The government could not count on its coalition partner, the Shas party, for support; the rigorously Orthodox party was voting against the bill in retaliation for preliminary passage earlier that day of legislation legalizing prostitution.

The day was saved by two coalition members who rushed in at the last moment – – one of them, Dedi Zucker of Meretz, with a temperature of 104. The vote was 37-36.

If the bill wins final passage, as expected, it will be up to Rabin to decide what, if any, effect it will have on government policy regarding the PLO. But there is little evidence to suggest Rabin will be keen about making any shift from Israel’s traditional hostility to Yasir Arafat and his organization.

The prime minister coldly ignored Arafat’s call for a face-to-face meeting between them, which the PLO leader issued last week in a deftly timed, first- ever interview in Tunis with an Israeli newspaper.

Moreover, Rabin has continued to blast away at Arafat in his speeches as “the prime obstacle to progress” in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

He says the PLO fears that creation of an autonomous regime in the territories, run by local Palestinian leaders, would effectively neutralize Arafat and his circle.

Some Rabin-watchers say it is this logic and not any simplistic boycott of terrorists that lies beneath his continued refusal to deal with the PLO.

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