After heavy pressure from members of Congress, the Reagan administration has ordered the Palestinian Liberation Organization to close its Washington information office within 30 days. The move is designed to send a message to the PLO that the United States strongly disapproves of the reintegration into the organization's leadership of elements that support the use of terrorism, senior officials say. They cited the reelection this year of Muhammad (``Abul'') Abbas in the PLO's executive board. Mr. Abbas reportedly oversaw the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro in which a US citizen was killed.
The officials also pointed to the reintegration into the PLO hierarchy last April of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both organizations have used indiscriminate terror and targeted US interests in the past, officials say.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa said the decision was worked out in negotiations between the State Department and representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, according to the Associated Press. AIPAC had publicly endorsed legislation to ban PLO offices from the US and worked hard for its passage.
And the American Jewish Congress played a role in drafting the proposed legislation, according to a spokesman for the organization.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee say they will fight the decision in the courts.
Since April 1986, Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York has led the congressional fight to ban PLO funded and staffed offices in the US has been gaining momentum, according to congessional sources.
In a series of letters to Secretary of State George Shultz, they say, Mr. Kemp argued that the US had the legal authority to close down the offices and should do so because US citizens have been victims of terrorist actions by PLO elements. Unsatisfied by that response, the aides say, Kemp introduced legislation in April. A Senate version followed in May.
In late July, Mr. Shultz responded to an earlier Kemp letter, according to congressional sources, writing that the US had the legal right to close the Washington office, if it so desired, ``at an appropriate time.'' The government could not stop US citizens from continuing to work on behalf of the PLO, Shultz's letter reportedly said, nor could it close the UN offices of the PLO, because of an agreement with the UN headquarters.
When Kemp and others continued to press, these aides add, the administration offered to close the Washington office, in hopes of halting the legislation. US officials say the bill would tie the administration's hands in working on the Middle East peace process and in meeting obligations to the UN.
Kemp reportedly remains determined to push his legislation.
The issue is much more complicated than a simple ``yea or nea'' on terrorism, according to State Department officials.
First, they say, the PLO is an umbrella organization - some of its members support terrorism, others do not - and it remains a key actor on Mideast peace questions. Though the US should demonstrate its strong disapproval of any support of terrorism, officials say, the US still supports the efforts of the Palestinians peacefully to achieve their legitimate rights, and for many Palestinians the PLO is the means to achieve those rights. The administration still hopes to move forward on the Mideast peace process, and moderates in the PLO would be important in that process.
Second, although the Justice Department has found that the Washington PLO office can be closed as a foreign mission, that finding is subject to legal challenge and it cannot not stop US citizens from performing the same type of information functions on behalf of the PLO, officials explain.
Third, many sticky questions of US treaty obligations and precedents arise in regard to closing the PLO mission to the UN, officials say. For example, if the US tries to close one UN recognized mission, it will raise the broader questions of the US's right to close any mission to that organization and therefore of the UN's independence.