PLO vs. Hamas

January 24, 1993

Israel's decriminalization of private contact with the PLO is a boost for the Middle East peace process that has been delayed by the American election. As the Palestinian delegation with which Israel negotiates takes direction from the PLO, the law was a sham that made relations a charade. Now Israeli peaceniks such as Abie Nathan and television can help Yasser Arafat to make a direct overture to the Israeli public, and the Palestinian delegation can function openly as it has clandestinely.

Although this was a 39-20 decision of Israel's Knesset, from which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dissociates himself, Israel is tilting toward PLO and against its more extremist rival, Hamas. When the PLO was clearly the dominant political expression of Palestinians, the previous Israeli government in effect was doing the opposite. Now the fear is that a weakened PLO cannot deliver Palestinians.

The PLO may or may not qualify to make peace with Israel. Hamas will not. The peace process, so laboriously started by the Bush administration, has really been with the PLO all along. The question arises whether Israel can sit down with an organization that sponsored terrorism and dedicated itself to Israel's destruction. The answer is that one cannot make peace with a friend, only with an enemy.

This said, Israel ought to readmit the 414 or so expelled Palestinians who have remained in no man's land on Lebanon's side of the border since Dec. 17. It is true that Israel had to act to protect citizens after the murder of a border policemen for which Hamas claimed credit. Most of the expellees are linked to proscribed organizations. It is equally true that Arab regimes such as Egypt and Algeria imprison fundamentalist activists rather than merely expel them.

But there are four overriding reasons for Israel to take them back. (1) The United Nations Security Council demands it and should be taken seriously by all nations. (2) It would promote the peace talks, even though the men in Lebanon presumably oppose the talks. (3) The tactic boomeranged. Syria's dictator Hafez el Assad, who pulls Lebanon's strings, prevented the deportees from entering Lebanon and keeps them stranded as popular martyrs defying Israel. Mr. Rabin should cut his losses. (4) Israel should adhere to higher humanitarian standards than its enemies who do not try.

Mr. Rabin told President Clinton that Israel is willing to take risks for peace as long as it remains strong to stand up to enemies. On that ground, Israel can make this gesture to restart the talks.

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