Law blocking contact with PLO puts Israelis on spot

April 18, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Abbie Nathan, an Israeli peace activist, went to prison for talking to the wrong person. Yasser Arafat, to be precise.

Israeli law forbids contact with terrorist organizations, such as Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, and Mr. Nathan was just released March 30 after six months for breaking that law.

This week, the government had the same crime flaunted in its face -- by Palestinians. The entire Palestinian delegation to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks met with Mr. Arafat in Cairo, virtually daring the government to respond.

This put the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a prickly place.

To enforce the law against the delegates could demolish the entire negotiations and anger its powerful sponsor.

But to ignore the meeting threatens to alienate the right-wing of Mr. Shamir's government.

And it poses the question of why the government can jail Israelis like Mr. Nathan while turning a blind eye to the same act by Palestinians.

Mr. Nathan is a well-known and, in some quarters, well-respected former Israeli Air Force captain who has engaged in a succession of flamboyant gestures for peace over three decades.

He has been imprisoned three times for violating the Israeli "meetings law" forbidding contact with organizations deemed by the government to be terrorist.

His most recent jailing, at the age of 64, prompted renewed debate about this law. Critics say the law has squelched private peace initiatives, and it was a major stumbling block in selecting a delegation of Palestinians to the peace talks.

While Mr. Arafat's PLO is seen by the Israeli government, and much of the West, as a terrorist organization with a bloody history, it is viewed overwhelmingly by Palestinians as its national government-in-exile.

The meeting Wednesday seemed a demonstration by the Palestinians of their loyalties to the organization. And it was a demonstration of how problematic the "meetings law" has become.

By week's end, it was clear the government was resolving its dilemma by resolutely ignoring the whole matter.

"The PLO is irrelevant to the peace process, so if they met Arafat or did not meet Arafat is meaningless," a spokesman for the prime minister insisted. Mr. Shamir went on army radio to say nothing had changed in the peace negotiations.

But the Israeli press pursued the question. Ruby Rivlin, a Parliament member from Mr. Shamir's Likud bloc, demanded the government "find out what happened."

Yossi Ben-Ahron, Mr. Shamir's chief aide, finally said the attorney general will consider the matter, though many expect it will die there.

Mr. Ben-Ahron pointedly reaffirmed Israeli plans to be at the fifth round of the peace talks in Washington April 27.

It has been an open secret that members of the delegation meet with Mr. Arafat on their frequent trips outside Israel. The government ignored a similar meeting in Algeria last September. But to preserve the facade, all sides have officially denied such meetings occur.

Wednesday, however, the Palestinians did little to hide their activities. Mr. Arafat, who last week survived a plane crash in Libya, flew to Cairo and delegates were seen entering his house. They held a press conference afterward. Their spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, confirmed the meeting without mentioning Mr. Arafat's name.

"If it is illegal to pursue a humanitarian commitment to a fellow Palestinian who has been subjected to a very serious and dramatic accident . . . I think there's something seriously wrong with the world perception and the Israeli position," she was quoted as saying.

Mr. Rivlin complained that the Palestinians deliberately revealed the meeting to embarrass and further fracture the Likud bloc. The Likud already is divided as it approaches national elections June 23.

"It is not only breaking the rules of the game, but it's a provocation against the Likud," he protested.

Mr. Nathan is banking on a victory by the opposition Labor party to throw out the "meetings law." It would be a burden off him: He was jailed for 40 days in 1968 for a "peace trip" to Egypt; for four months in 1989 for trips to Tunis, and was sentenced to 18 months last October for another foray to Tunis.

His last sentence was commuted in March to six months after Mr. Nathan promised not to break the law again. But "I refused to ask for a pardon," he insisted.

"It's a ridiculous law," he said. "Unless you speak to the enemy, there is no chance for any peace."

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