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In Reversal, PLO May Get Diplomatic Outpost in US

Clinton urges overturning ban on contacts with Palestinian group

THE Clinton administration, paving the way for broader peace agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, is moving to rescind legal restrictions that since the mid-1980s have banned the PLO from operating in the United States.

* Last week, Ambassador Dennis Ross, US coordinator of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, briefed key members of the Senate on why the PLO should be allowed to function here.

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* On Sept. 28, legislation was introduced in the Senate to suspend two key restrictions: the ban on PLO operations in the US and a measure that prevents US contributions to international agencies from reaching the PLO.

* The administration hopes that by October, the PLO will be allowed to open an office in Washington.

``We want the PLO and Israel to be able to implement their accords,'' says a State Department official, referring to the Sept. 13 signature of a declaration of principles on self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ``The PLO will need to be in touch with our government and with international agencies in Washington,'' in addition to the Israelis.

President Clinton's decision early this month to reopen the dialogue with the PLO did not counteract legal restrictions on PLO activity. Congress, still a bulwark of anti-PLO sentiment, now must be persuaded to retract some of that legislation.

``The administration's preference was for a repeal [rather than a waiver] of the restrictions,'' says a Senate staff member who attended last week's briefing. ``There's a consensus that Congress wants to be helpful, but there's still a good deal of caution and a repeal is unachievable.''

Even after Congress passes waivers permitting the PLO to operate in the US, other restrictions will remain. At least 15 different measures that have criminalized PLO activities and associations in the US are still on the books, according to Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab-Americans, the major pro-Arab lobby group. For example, US citizens cannot accept money from the PLO.

These restrictions, he says, were built on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's 1975 memo to Israel, which guaranteed that no US government official would talk to the PLO until it recognizes US Resolutions 242 and 338 and acknowledges Israel's right to exist. Later, the US government added a further stipulation: no contact with the PLO until it renounces terrorism.

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The restrictions cost former UN Ambassador Andrew Young his job in 1979 after he met with a PLO official in New York. And in 1990, the Bush administration, after a protracted lawsuit, closed the fledgling Palestine Information Office in Washington, a branch of the PLO.

Once the way is cleared for the PLO, the next question will be who will represent the group in Washington. Several names are circulating. They are Hanan Ashrawi, who has attained fame and respect in the US as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation in peace talks here, and Nabil Shaath, a close adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and an influential figure in the Washington peace talks.

``For some people, Nabil is the only one who could do this job,'' says Mr. Jahshan, who has been close to the peace process. ``But it might be a surprise.''

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