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Crucial Vote on PLO Status Nears


THE United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to make what may prove a vital decision today regarding its own financial future. The Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution that would upgrade the observer status of the Palestine Liberation Organization from that of an organization to that of a state. The US, which once tried to shut down even the present PLO observer mission at the UN, has threatened to cut off all funding if the status is changed.

Until now the PLO has focused its fight to gain international recognition largely on the UN specialized agencies. Last year the PLO parliament-in-exile declared the existence of a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories. Success now in persuading the UN's largest membership body to upgrade the PLO's observer status would set a precedent other UN agencies might easily follow.

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Washington's argument that the PLO does not have the territory, control of population, and government to qualify as a state is considered strong. ``International law is very clear on that,'' says Elie Krakowski, a Boston University professor of international relations.

Still, Washington's response to the current PLO move and its choice of tactics - the same used to force internal UN reforms in the past - amount to an overreaction, say some observers. Use of payments to try to effect policy is ``a very disquieting development,'' says Jeswald Salacuse, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an international lawyer. Yet he admits that nations are not at the point of world order where the US can be outvoted and then expected to ``docilely'' go along. ``The reality is that big states have big clout,'' he says.

UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar insists that the US, already $430 million in arrears on dues, is legally obliged under the charter to pay up regardless of UN policies. ``The US does have a legal obligation to pay,'' agrees Harvard Law School professor Abram Chayes.

The US might have gained some leverage with the PLO, in urging it to drop the Assembly bid, if Washington had shown greater interest in at least the possibility of a Palestinian state, suggests former US Ambassador to Egypt Hermann Eilts. He says he is concerned that the strength of the US reaction to the PLO move in the UN may destroy whatever influence the US had achieved with the PLO that could be useful in the Middle East peace process.

Rather than threaten the UN, which is ``the victim, not the perpetrator,'' United Nations Association of the USA president Edward Luck says he would have preferred the use of other options before any knee-jerk reaction on funding. Still, Mr. Luck contends that the US had to do something strong and early to make its concern clear. The primary issue is not PLO statehood, he says, but the degree to which a UN tie can be used as a kind of ``political football'' to prove points.

Many nations privately admit they are reluctant to see the current PLO proposal put to an assembly vote. The majority of UN members in some form have recognized the PLO as the representative of Palestine and might approve the status shift if forced to choose in an open forum. The US, Western Europeans, and others are said to be working on a procedural move aimed at avoiding such a showdown.

The timing and choice of forum for the current PLO push surprised even Arab diplomats. UN business has been proceeding on an unusually harmonious and successful course. The US to date had managed to stave off PLO efforts to upgrade the organization's status in the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and the World Tourism Office. Diplomatic observers suspect that the current PLO initiative has its roots in divisions within the organization and in an increasing frustration at feeling left out of the Middle East peace process.

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Still, the PLO has chalked up some gains and could have more ahead. The US decision last year to deny a visa to PLO leader Yasser Arafat for a UN speaking engagement prompted an Assembly vote to transfer the entire meeting to Geneva. Last week the Food and Agricultural Organization governing council further opened the door a crack by approving a resolution, sharply critical of Israel, that allows the PLO a role in helping with agricultural development in the Israeli-occupied territories. Before the vote, the US threatened to cut FAO funding and hinted it might withdraw its membership.

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