ISRAEL has taken a step closer to direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization by repealing a ban on meetings between Israeli citizens and members of the Tunis-based Palestinian organization.
But no one expects a summit soon between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, despite calls on Tuesday for a meeting by senior PLO aide Bassam Abu Sharif.
Israel's repeal of a 1986 law banning meetings with the PLO was approved Tuesday by a vote of 39 to 20 in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Mr. Rabin's absence from the final vote was seen as a signal that the prime minister has no immediate plans to change the government policy of refusing direct meetings with the PLO.
Still, Israeli government sources said removal of the legal taboo against such meetings will "prepare" Israeli public opinion for official links at a later date.
"We are giving a signal that when we finish talks on an interim period [of Palestinian autonomy] and come to discussions on a final settlement, the PLO representatives will play a part," Israel's left-wing Science Minister Amnon Rubenstein says of the legislative move.
Recent Israeli newspaper polls indicate 44 percent public support for direct talks with the PLO. Keeping the momentum
Although Rabin has continued to describe Mr. Arafat as an "obstacle" to peace, he has recently hinted that there are PLO "moderates" with whom Israel could do business. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, meanwhile, softened more noticeably.
At a press conference in Jerusalem last month, Mr. Peres said: "The difference in the Palestinian camp is not characterized by geographical distinctions but by political ones. I can see some people in Tunis who support the peace process."
Observing the dramatic Knesset vote on Tuesday was Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan, who spent nearly a year in jail after being prosecuted for meeting repeatedly with Arafat.
Immediately after the vote, Mr. Nathan left for Tunis to ask the PLO chairman for a gesture from the Palestinian side "in order to keep the momentum going."
In the occupied territories, Palestinian spokeswoman to the peace talks Hanan Ashrawi welcomed the removal of the ban on meeting PLO representatives.
But she cautioned that the deadlock over the fate of more than 400 Palestinians expelled by Israel to Lebanon last month would blunt the impact of the Knesset action.
"I think it is an important step and a positive one, and I hope it will inevitably lead to direct negotiations and dialogue between the Israeli government and the PLO," Ms. Ashrawi said in an interview yesterday. She added that the Israeli parliamentary move would not, on its own, cancel Palestinian demands for a return of the Palestinian expellees prior to continuing with peace talks. Peace talks had been planned for February, but are likely to be delayed until the expellee issue is resolved.
"The next round of talks is still pending the return of the deportees," Ashrawi said. "Repeal of the law banning meetings with the PLO doesn't eradicate or counter ... the expulsions." Dodging misperceptions
Ashrawi indicated that PLO leaders do not want to be seen engaging in rapprochement with Israel at the expense of competing Palestinian fundamentalists.
"We don't want this gesture or move to be conceived as compensation, that Israel is clamping down on one side [the fundamentalists] while making more positive steps toward the PLO."
The law banning Israeli meetings with the PLO, even in pursuit of peace, was enacted by the Knesset as an amendment to Israel's "Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance." The ban was part of a right-wing backlash against increasingly frequent 1980s meetings between prominent left-wing Israelis and top PLO officials.
The meetings coincided with a gradual PLO acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, replacing the total opposition to the Jewish state expressed by the PLO in the 1960s and 1970s.
After peace talks between Israel and Palestinian representatives from the territories were launched in Madrid in 1991, the law banning contacts with the PLO came under heavy fire.
Critics noted that while the right-wing Likud government was negotiating with Palestinians from the territories who openly declared they were taking orders from the Tunis-based PLO, Israelis like Nathan were in jail for meeting with PLO officials.
Last November, six months after election of a new center-left Israeli government, Justice Minister David Libai proposed a repeal of the law. Mr. Libai described it as a blight on Israel's democracy because it "imposes a political viewpoint by means of punishment."