JERUSALEM -- Israel's police minister yesterday said he will arrest members of the Palestinian peace talks delegation for meeting with the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Such arrests could paralyze the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave somewhat guarded support to the police minister's promise. He was quoted by Israel Radio yesterday as saying he expected legal action would be taken.
The delegates were due to return tomorrow from their meeting in Amman, Jordan, with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. But a spokesman said those plans are not firm.
The arrest threat is an escalation of stakes in the diplomatic poker that has been played over contact between the delegation members and the PLO.
The Israeli government has determinedly ignored regular meetings between the PLO and delegation members on their trips outside Israel. Such meetings violate Israeli law, which forbids contact with a "terrorist organization."
Thursday, however, that contact became impossible to ignore when news photographers showed up to take pictures of the meeting.
Photos of Mr. Arafat hugging the delegation spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, appeared on the front pages of Israeli newspapers yesterday. Also present were Faisal al-Husseini, the delegation head, and chief negotiator Haider Abdel-Shafi.
The development, five days before the Israeli election, seemed calculated to force the Israeli government to give up its official charade that it had barred the PLO from the peace talks.
In a statement, Mr. Husseini said, "We wanted to send a message to the Israeli people that the PLO supports the peace process, and . . . is committed to it."
Police Minister Ronnie Milo announced at a meeting of businessmen in Tel Aviv that "the moment they return to the country, they will be arrested and all the steps will be taken against them," according to his spokesman.
Arresting the delegation members would throw a wild card into the Israeli election. It could boost Mr. Shamir's popularity among conservative and right-wing voters, whose support he desperately needs. But it could alienate moderate voters, who want the peace process to continue.
The United States has strongly urged Mr. Shamir and the Palestinians not to disrupt the peace negotiations. One of the conditions set by Israel before beginning the talks was that none of the delegation members could represent the PLO. Mr. Shamir said the public meeting in Amman violated that condition.
It was unclear whether the publicity was expected by the delegation, or planned only by Mr. Arafat. Palestinian advisers who remained here were surprised, and some were angry.
"This was not smart," said one adviser. "I don't think it will help the peace process."
Mr. Husseini, responding through a spokesman, said, "We did not invite the cameras. The cameras came to us."
After each trip by the Palestinian delegates out of the country, right-wing Israeli politicians have demanded that the "terrorist meetings" law be enforced. Yesterday, Knesset member Rehavam Ze'evi said failure to prosecute the Palestinians would indicate loss of control of the occupied territories.
But Yossi Sarid, head of the liberal Meretz party, said the arrest threat is "stupid and irresponsible."
"There would be no sense in arresting them, because they would have to be released because of international pressure," he said.
Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin has said he would not try to stop meetings between Palestinian delegates and the PLO. The party yesterday released a statement saying the government "is sticking its head in the sand."
The United States, anxious to avoid damage to the peace process, broke a five-week embargo on comments about the Middle East in advance of the Israeli election.
"We've repeatedly stated that the PLO is not part of the peace process that we have helped construct, and we're thus troubled by the meeting, and we have conveyed our concerns to the Palestinians," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.