PLO's moment of truth

Kill 'em,'' said one of our local shopkeepers, an ordinarily peaceful man. He was, of course, referring to the four terrorists being held in Italy for hijacking the liner Achille Lauro. ``Cowards like that, who would murder an elderly man in a wheelchair, we should just get rid of them.''

Though some talked in bloodthirsty terms of vengeance, and others more clinically of justice, there was not much deviation in our community from the view that the four being held should undergo drastic punishment for their crime.

Not since the Iranian hostage crisis, when one of our local gas stations hung an effigy of Khomeini from its flagpole, has there been such a unanimous outburst of anger and revulsion. What we have seen locally seems to reflect a mood of national indignation.

It is something of which the Palestine Liberation Organization should take note. For if American public opinion is important to the PLO cause, this must be a low point in its mobilization on behalf of the PLO.

The PLO seems to want American, and other international, acceptance. It hints it is ready for peace. Its Arab friends, like King Hussein of Jordan, say the PLO is ready to recognize Israel's existence and talk with the Israelis. There are many who want to believe this. But such actions as have recently taken place on the Italian cruise liner undermine this will to trust in PLO signals.

Patience is running out.

The British, who were due to meet with a PLO delegation Monday, reportedly canceled the meeting because the PLO representatives were not prepared to give satisfactory assurances of nonviolence and acceptance of Israel.

The terrorists who boarded the Achille Lauro are certainly guilty of hijacking a ship at sea, of beating and ill-treating passengers and crew members, and probably of murder, despite the flimflam story their supporters are trying to spread about the manner in which Leon Klinghoffer met his death. There seems little doubt that they were particularly hostile to Americans and Jews.

It is now suggested that all this behavior on their part was an accidental diversion from the main goal. The main goal was to land in Israel, create havoc, and kill Israelis. Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, has denied complicity in their assignment. But deeply implicated is one of his lieutenants, Muhammad Abbas.

At very best, then, a PLO-supporting faction was intent on attacking Israel at a time when the PLO is supposed to be ready to accept Israel and deal with it peacefully.

The trail of smashed political crockery the terrorists have left in their wake is awesome.

They may have set back the Middle East peace process.

They have roiled the relationship between the United States and Egypt, countries that have been in the forefront of the peace campaign.

They have ruffled the relationship between the United States and Italy.

They have irritated Egypt and Italy, both of whose governments have been sympathetic to the PLO.

Their action has overshadowed, and pushed into the background, the recent Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunisia, which had met with some adverse international reaction.

And what they did and what they planned has reignited Israeli suspicion about PLO double-dealing at a time when many are working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

If this is all a devilishly clever Palestinian Liberation Organization plan to bring the Palestinian cause closer to fruition, forgive me for not sensing its direction and achievements.

There is a legitimate Palestinian cause and a case. But if the Palestinians are ever to get some kind of homeland, where they can live at peace with their neighbors, it will not come about through murdering elderly American Jews in wheelchairs.

This may be the moment of truth for Mr. Arafat: Is it to be the terrorist's gun, or statesmanship?

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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