The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said yesterday it opposes all attacks against civilians, but the United States in effect rejected the statement as insufficient to stem pressure on President Bush to halt the U.S.-PLO dialogue.
"We remain against any military action which targets civilians, regardless of the nature of such action, and we condemn it," the PLO said in Tunis. The statement was issued after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat that failure to speak out almost certainly would lead to suspension of the dialogue, which started in December 1988 when Arafat renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist.
However, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said the Bush administration was "disappointed" that the PLO had not specifically condemned an attempted seaborne raid on a beach near Tel Aviv May 30 by a radical PLO faction -- the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) -- and made no comment about the PLF's leader, Abul Abbas, a member of the PLO's 15-member executive council.
Both Fitzwater and Tutwiler said the administration has not decided whether to end the dialogue, and they added there is "no calendar or timetable" for a decision. However, other U.S. officials who declined to be identified said the comments were a signal that the administration regards the PLO's response as inadequate and wants it to condemn the raid unequivocally and take action against Abbas.
At the outset of the dialogue in 1988, the U.S. ambassador in Tunis, Robert H. Pelletreau, served notice that the United States would halt the dialogue if the PLO failed to condemn terrorism and expel from the executive council any factions found to be involved in terrorism.
At a news conference last Friday in Turnberry, Scotland, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said those conditions still apply. However, Arafat contends that only the Palestine National Council (PNC), the PLO's parliament in exile, has the power to expel Abbas.
Khalad Hassan, a PNC member, is in this country for what an administration official described as a private visit. However, Mideast diplomatic sources said he had come in an effort to explain Arafat's difficulties in meeting the U.S. conditions and to explore whether compromise is possible.
Diplomatic sources said that in a 15-minute phone conversation last Friday Bush warned Mubarak that the PLO's failure to speak out was a serious matter, and Mubarak replied that breaking off the dialogue would be a severe blow to efforts to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.
A copy of the latest PLO statement was given to the Egyptian ambassador in Baghdad yesterday for transmission to U.S. officials, the sources said. Later, Said Kamal, the PLO representative in Cairo, and Nabil Shaath, another PLO official, met with a top Mubarak aide to discuss the statement.
Pelletreau has met with PLO representatives four times in recent days, including yesterday, and the Swedish government, which in 1988 helped coax Arafat into making the statements that led to opening of the dialogue, also sent an emissary to urge him to take action acceptable to Washington.
Baker will testify before Congress today and Wednesday, and the White House anticipates he will face intensive questioning about the PLO, but senior officials said the administration is determined not to make a decision until it has demonstrated to Mubarak and other moderate Arab states that Bush has gone what one called "the extra mile" in giving the PLO ample opportunity to condemn the raid.
Vice President Quayle, speaking yesterday to the annual meeting here of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), recalled that Bush said Friday the dialogue "is predicated on a renunciation of terror." But he dodged questions about what Bush might do, saying the president will make "the right decision."
Staff correspondent Caryle Murphy contributed to this report from Cairo.