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Cramping the marketplace

IF any single stereotype epitomizes the Middle East in the minds of Westerners, it may well be the bazaar, the marketplace. Buyers and sellers haggle back and forth until a compromise is reached - or the buyer walks away. How ironic, then, that the marketplace of ideas for peace in the Middle East be so impoverished by a recent order from the United States State Department.

We are referring to the closure of the Palestine Information Office in Washington, the information arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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In September the State Department changed the classification of the office from ``foreign agent'' to ``foreign mission'' (e.g., an embassy) and ordered it closed down. The PIO, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, has sued to reverse the closure.

A federal judge has ruled that the closure was justified by ``compelling governmental interest'' which only incidentally restricted freedom of speech.

Whether the PLO is a terrorist organization, or a coalition including terrorist elements, will not be resolved here. Nor will whether any non-PLO Palestinians have standing to negotiate with Israel.

But the Washington information office has been linked to no terrorist activity and has operated fully within the relevant laws. To close it is to silence a voice in the Middle East debate within the United States. If the PIO's ``wares'' are as specious as its opponents would claim, they will be discovered to be so sooner in open debate than in no debate. And no one will be forced to buy.

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