In Israel, the question of who, if anyone, is allowed to break the taboo of talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization got caught up in a tragicomic tangle of superfine distinctions Sunday.
An Israeli court sentenced peace activist Abie Nathan to 18 months in jail for talking to PLO chief Yasser Arafat this summer. According to law, no Israeli can make contact with members of "terrorist organizations."
On the same day, a pair of Palestinian activists came back from a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't trip to a PLO meeting in Algeria. They will be called in for police questioning, but government officials hinted they would not be prosecuted.
The reason for the apparent leniency: Non-Israelis are not bound by the anti-contact law. Still, it is illegal for Palestinians to belong to the PLO, and a government minister virtually declared the pair, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, members of the organization.
To make sense of Nathan's prosecution and the free hand for Husseini and Ashrawi, it helps to inspect the current state of talks among the United States, Israel and the Palestinians that are meant to pave the way for Middle East peace conference.
Washington is trying to get a PLO blessing for the talks without directly involving the group, which has a long terrorist history. In uneasy cooperation, the Israeli government has looked the other way as Palestinians, in meetings with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have presented themselves as representatives of the PLO.
But letting Israelis talk to the PLO, viewed as an unrepentant enemy of Israel, is another matter. "Shamir doesn't want it to become accepted that Israelis--and particularly himself--can openly talk with the PLO," said veteran journalist Yehuda Litani.
So the government jailed Nathan, 64, who operated an offshore radio station called the Voice of Peace and has been campaigning doggedly to overturn the ban on PLO contacts. "Without speaking to the enemy, there won't be any chance of peace. . . ," Nathan said after the sentencing.
He said he will meet with Arafat again as soon as the prison term is over. "I hope that by then, the law will be changed," he said.
Last year, Nathan spent 122 days in jail for talking with the PLO.
Husseini and Ashrawi returned from London and--Palestinians here and in Algeria say--a secret trip to Algiers to meet with Arafat and other top PLO officials to press for a PLO blessing on the peace conference proposal. The conference would bring Israel and Arab neighbors face to face for wide-ranging talks.
At the airport near Tel Aviv, police told Husseini and Ashrawi that they will be called for questioning. To reporters, the two were coy about Algeria but admitted having met Palestinians in London. Other Jerusalem activists say that the London contacts were with the PLO.
In any case, both expect to travel to Washington this week for a meeting with Baker. They are trying to win guarantees from Washington that the peace conference will end with the creation of a Palestinian state.
In addition, they are resisting Israel's demand for a veto over the makeup of the Palestinian delegation. Israel wants to exclude overt PLO members and Arab residents of Jerusalem. "We will present a list to no one," said Husseini, a leading nationalist figure. "The delegation is not subject to any veto or discussion."
Shamir has come under fire from government ministers for letting Husseini and Ashrawi declare themselves PLO representatives.
Health Minister Ehud Olmert, a confidant of Shamir, hinted that the government cannot arrest Husseini and Ashrawi because it would bring too much adverse publicity on the eve of the peace conference.