Israel launched a media campaign Thursday to blame the Palestine Liberation Organization for the hijacking of an Italian ocean liner. In a rare, on-the-record press briefing, Foreign Ministry Director David Kimche claimed that Israel has ``absolute, complete, irrefutable proof that [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat knew about that operation before it came about.''
Mr. Arafat, who has been seeking to join the peace process, has denied any involvement in the hijacking and joined in negotiations that led to the hijackers' surrender. The PLO reportedly asked that the hijackers be turned over to it for punishment.
Arafat's efforts to portray his Al-Fatah branch of the PLO as a moderate organization that should represent the Palestinians in any peace talks with Israel would suffer a severe setback if it were proved that he was involved in the hijacking.
The Israelis seem determined to make the link between Arafat and the hijacking. Israel has consistently insisted that the PLO is a terrorist organization that Israel will not negotiate with.
Israeli officials have been worried that the Reagan administration might be persuaded by moderate Arab states and its European allies to deal with the PLO.
Jordan's King Hussein maintains that the Arafat-controlled part of the PLO is now committed to seeking a political solution to the Palestinian issue. King Hussein signed an agreement with Arafat last February to jointly pursue peace negotiations, and, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has tried hard since then to persuade the United States to talk with the PLO.
Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, recently displayed her sympathy for Hussein's position by inviting to London two members of the PLO Executive Committee as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team designed to explain Jordan's peace efforts. The Americans have not yet met with such a team, despite pleas from Hussein.
Israel remains determined to prevent any official dealings between the Americans and the PLO, and has aimed much of its recent diplomatic efforts at convincing Hussein, Mubarak, and the Americans that the peace process can continue only if the PLO is left out of it.
The hijacking of the Italian vessel seems to have presented the Israelis with an opportunity they are eager to exploit in driving home their insistence that the PLO is a violent, unstable organization.
One American, an elderly Jew named Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown into the sea before the four Palestinian gunmen surrendered Wednesday night. The US administration has demanded that those responsible for Mr. Klinghoffer's murder be tried. The Italians have asked for the extradition of the four gunmen by Egypt, where they surrendered.
Mr. Kimche alleged that the gunmen originally planned simply to ride the oceanliner into Ashdod harbor in Israel, where he said they would have carried out an operation against Israelis.
``The plan went awry,'' the director general said. ``We believe that they [the gunmen] were discovered.''
Kimche said he could not reveal any hard evidence to support Israel's claims.
The Achille Lauro is a cruise ship that travels from Genoa, Italy, to Egypt, then to Ashdod, to Greece, and then returns to Italy. Some 400 people were on board when it was commandeered by men who identified them- selves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front.
The Palestine Liberation Front is a splinter group that broke into three organizations after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. One of the factions is pro-Syrian, another is based in Lebanon, and a third, headed by Abu Abbas, is based in Tunis. The Abu Abbas faction is ``anti-Syrian more than pro-Arafat,'' a Western expert on the PLO in Cyprus said.
But Abu Abbas serves on the PLO Executive Committee, and Israel has used that link to allege that Arafat therefore knew of the organization's operations.
Arafat was called upon by Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi to intervene and guarantee the safety of the hostages shortly after the crisis began. The Italian prime minister Wednesday praised Arafat for his role in ending the hijacking before it was learned that one hostage had been killed.
PLF sources in Cyprus confirmed that it was the Tunis-based branch of the PLF that carried out the hijacking. But the hijacking, the Cypriot sources insisted, was not part of the orders given to the men on board. The commandos were reportedly told to launch an on-shore attack in Ashdod.
The bungled attack, in Kimche's words, ``would have been ridiculous had someone not been murdered.''
Its importance now is political. As Prime Minister Shimon Peres prepares to leave next week for the US, the Israelis can be expected to keep pressure on the PLO, pointing to the hijacking, in particular, as evidence that their refusal to negotiate with the PLO is justified.
The hijacking was condemned by the United Nations Security Council in a letter read Wednesday by Vernon Walters, the American ambassador to the UN.