WASHINGTON -- Israel remained the only holdout to this week's Middle East peace talks after Palestinians decided yesterday to send a delegation to Washington without recognized figures of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Palestinians' last-minute bid to include PLO members had threatened a rift with the United States and raised the possibility that the Palestinians, like Israel, would boycott the opening of the talks.
That would have undercut any Arab propaganda advantage in being able to point to empty Israeli seats.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said the United States had refused to issue visas for certain people proposed as part of the Palestinian team.
In the end, the team the Palestinians dispatched to Washington did not include anyone with close enough ties to the PLO to require a special U.S. visa waiver.
Under U.S. law, officers, representatives or spokesmen for the PLO are routinely barred unless waivers are granted. No one in those categories has been granted a waiver for the Washington peace talks, Miss Tutwiler said. In the past, the United States usually granted waivers only for humanitarian reasons or to PLO members attending academic conferences or the United Nations.
The Palestinian delegation, including the same 14 negotiators sent to the Madrid, Spain, peace conference and seven additional advisers, left Amman, Jordan, yesterday and is scheduled to arrive in the United States today.
James Zogby of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute said the PLO ban was a "smoke screen" stemming from a "taboo" against dealing with the organization.
"There's a deliberate effort to obfuscate and not deal frontall with the fact that the PLO is central to the process," he said.
With Israel sticking to its boycott plan, tomorrow's scheduled opening of the talks is shaping up as a symbolic exercise devoid of substance. Israel has said it won't sent its negotiators until Monday.
The United States refused yesterday to offer Israel any public concession that would allow it a face-saving way out of what some Israeli officials say privately is a serious public relations problem.
"We'll be open ready and for business" tomorrow morning, Miss Tutwiler said, although no decision had been made yesterday on where and when the talks would start.
Israel, although it is refusing to send negotiators for tomorrow's session, has dispatched one of its most articulate spokesmen, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A Jordanian source who is in Washington for the talks was quoted by Reuters yesterday as saying that his delegation will remain in Washington until Monday if necessary. He said he thought the Palestinian delegation also would say but that he was not sure about the Syrians.