JERUSALEM (Jan. 20)
Israeli officials are hoping that new momentum will be injected into the peace process in the wake of the Knesset’s decision this week to lift a longstanding ban on contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Although the government remains firm in its position that the PLO not take part directly in the negotiations, officials hope the Knesset’s action Tuesday night will be interpreted as a goodwill gesture to Palestinians and will deflect some of the criticism leveled at Israel since its expulsion last month of 415 Moslem fundamentalists from the administered territories.
The ban on contacts with the PLO, which until now has been regarded as a terrorist organization, was repealed by a comfortable 39-20 margin.
But the late-night vote took place only after stormy debate and numerous attempts by members of the opposition Likud bloc to introduce amendments that, in effect, would have left the ban intact.
Under the law as now changed, Israeli citizens can still be prosecuted for meeting with PLO members, but it must be shown that damage to the security or interests of the state was intended or later resulted.
Under the previous ban, enacted in 1986, any meeting with PLO members was illegal.
The new law, as successfully amended last week by opposition parties, also stipulates that civil servants get prior authorization to meet with “representatives of terrorist organizations.”
According to other conditions imposed by the opposition, a complete ban will still apply to meetings with representatives of three Moslem fundamentalist groups: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Hezbollah.
The vote was the result of months of work by members of the Labor Party and left-wing Meretz bloc that began soon after the new government was formed last summer.
“Tonight it has been proven that a political turnover took place last summer,” said a triumphant Haim Ramon, minister of health, as he watched the vote tally being recorded on an electronic screen.
ABIE NATHAN HEADED FOR TUNIS
Veteran peace crusader Abie Nathan, one of just two Israelis ever to be jailed under the old law for meeting with the PLO, watched the Knesset vote from the visitor’s gallery with obvious satisfaction.
Nathan said he would fly to Tunis to deliver the news personally to Yasir Arafat and that he would also ask the PLO chief to make a reciprocal gesture.
Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz climbed up to the visitor’s gallery to embrace Nathan after the vote, telling him, “We have won the fight.”
Although the new measure was hotly debated throughout various stages during the past months, the final vote was conducted in the absence of several key players in both the ruling coalition and opposition parties.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing Tsomet party’s Rafael Eitan were all absent from the chamber when the vote was taken.
Rabin is known to be concerned that the Knesset action might encourage the United States to support calls for the PLO to play a more direct role in the peace talks.
According to the rules agreed to by all parties at the start of the peace talks in Madrid last year, the PLO was officially shut out of the negotiations.
However, it is well-known that the Palestinian negotiators from the West Bank and Gaza Strip take their cues from the PLO leadership based in Tunis.