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Israel’s Knesset Lifts Ban on PLO Contacts

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel’s Parliament voted Tuesday to lift the ban on contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization in a symbolic step toward resolution of the long, bitter Arab-Israeli conflict.

In ending the 1986 prohibition on direct contacts with the PLO as a “terrorist organization,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government effectively recognized that peace in the Middle East depends, first, on resolution of the Palestinian problem, and, for that, the PLO is key.

The practical effect of the vote in the Knesset, the country’s Parliament, will be to widen Israel’s dialogue with the Palestinians to include PLO leaders. Israel is already negotiating with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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By the time the late-evening vote came, the issues had been so thoroughly debated and the outcome so clear that only half the members of the Knesset were present. But the final tally, 39-20, reflected a growing consensus within the country to broaden and accelerate talks with the PLO.

Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that removal of the prohibition is a sign that the government probably will begin talking directly with the PLO soon--and that it needs to do so. “This is a Knesset that is thinking about peace,” he said. “This is a sign by the Knesset that it does not reject negotiations.

“We are trying to signal openness in terms of whom we negotiate with,” he added. “If we see that (PLO leader) Yasser Arafat is not torpedoing the peace talks, we will also be more open to him.”

A recent survey of the 120 Knesset members showed that nearly half, including two-thirds of Rabin’s Labor Party, favor direct negotiations with the PLO. Israeli liberals have urged the government to open such talks quickly to strengthen Palestinian moderates who support peace talks.

Personally still uncomfortable with the prospect of sitting across the table from Arafat, the PLO chairman, Rabin skipped the debate; he had delayed passage of the bill for months, fearing it would encourage the United States to resume its contacts with the PLO.

Yet Rabin has also been frustrated by the inability of the Palestinian delegation at the Arab-Israeli talks in Washington to make a decision, instead referring virtually all questions to the PLO leadership in Tunis. Israel, thus, has been in indirect negotiations with the PLO for more than a year.

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“The underlying argument for talking with the PLO is to talk with those who command the support of the majority of Palestinians, to talk with those who can deliver,” a senior Israeli official said. “The importance of this legislation is that it gives the government political and moral authority to proceed; legally, it really did not need the change.”

But Justice Minister David Libai pushed through legislation to honor election promises made by the Labor Party and Meretz, its leftist partner in the governing coalition; opposition by the right-wing Likud Party succeeded only in lengthening the debate and delaying the vote until nearly 11 p.m.

The legislation allows meetings with members of the PLO by Israelis who can demonstrate a “reasonable explanation.” Israel’s anti-terrorism law still prohibits contacts with “foreign agents” who might harm national security.

Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan, imprisoned twice for violating the old law, called on the government to open contacts with the PLO--and said he is making plans to leave immediately for a meeting with Arafat in Tunis.

The Knesset action drew immediate praise from Palestinian leaders here who have been negotiating with Israel with the approval of the PLO in the Middle East peace talks.

“This is a positive and important first step,” said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the talks. “We hope it will lead quickly to the dialogue that must take place between Israel and the PLO. It is always our position that nothing is to be gained by non-communication or boycotts. Peace is made between enemies and between parties who can deliver.”

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But Ashrawi warned that Israel should not regard its move as offsetting its deportation of more than 400 Palestinians to southern Lebanon as suspected supporters of militant Islamic groups. Members of the Palestinian delegation have said they will boycott the talks until Israel repatriates the exiles.

In Tunis, PLO spokesman Bassam abu Sharif said the Israeli move laid the basis for a dialogue, and he proposed a meeting between Arafat and Rabin to give negotiators new instructions. “This move will pave the way to set up an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel,” he said.

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