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Khalidi and the PLO

Starting in 1988, intermittently at first and then routinely from the launch of the Oslo talks in 1993, U.S. presidents have waived bans on contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

President Bush continued to do so even as he isolated its leader Yasser Arafat; he expressly sought to marginalize Arafat so he could cultivate moderates in the organization and the movement.

This extends to the group’s mission in Washington D.C. The idea is that U.S. officials need to communicate with the group in order to sustain credible U.S. involvement in the region.

Now, however, in the dying, damning days of an election campaign, we’ve somehow been DeLoreaned back to the 1980s and contact with the group has become radioactive, even though the Israeli government, with full Bush administration blessing, is scrambling to come to a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, who is still the PLO’s leader.

And so, Rashid Khalidi’s status as a former PLO spokesman has been repeatedly used against his friend Barack Obama. (I know there’s more to it than this: The McCain campaign wants the Los Angeles Times to release the tape of the 2003 Khalidi dinner to see whether the honoree said anything incendiary about Israel. A quick pan back to Barack and Michelle, nodding vigorously and fist-jabbing, would be icing on that cake.)

The problem with the “spokesman” claim is that you can actually prove it’s not true. In saner times, “prove it’s not true” would be a phrase frowned on in an innocent until proven guilty culture. Khalidi’s denial would be enough in the face of a lack of evidence as to same. Those promoting the claim cite a single 1982 article by Tom Friedman; Khalidi says Friedman got it wrong, and that the term “PLO spokesman” was used promiscuously in 1982 Beirut.

But like I said, things ain’t so sane.

So here’s the thing: What everyone acknowledges is that Khalidi was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid talks. That delegation – to a person – could not have had any formal affiliation with the PLO. Israel regarded the group as terrorist and its laws banned contact with its members; then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made NOT being affiliated with the PLO it a condition of Israel’s agreement to participate. The names of the Palestinian team would have been vetted by Israeli intelligence.

This was something of a nudge and a wink, of course: Faisal Husseini, who headed the team, was in constant contact with PLO headquarters in Tunis.

Still, it should put to rest the notion that Khalidi was ever a “spokesman” for the group.

“Seventeen years ago,” once upon a time, didn’t mean ancient history; one would expect older members of the McCain team to remember what was, at the time, a critical step in getting the sides to Madrid. The younger folks I can forgive and educate (Michael Goldfarb, consider yourself educated.)

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