A month ago, terrorists opened fire on a bus of Israeli tourists near Cario. Nine Israelis were machine-gunned to death. When the Palestine Liberation Organization issued a statement that appeared to justify the attack, the Egyptian government made its fury known to the PLO and the world media. And what was the official American reaction to the PLO statement? Nothing. Not a word.
Refusal to criticize the PLO has now become a cornerstone of Bush administration policy. The latest manifestation of this disposition to white-wash the Palestinian group is the report the State Department presented to Congress on Monday, as required by the PLO Commitments Compliance Act enacted last month.
In December 1988, Yasser Arafat told the world that he `renounced' terrorism and `recognized' the state of Israel. By uttering those magic words, Mr. Arafat immediately gained the recognition of the U.S. But Mr. Arafat has a long history of saying one thing and doing another. In fact, just one month before, Mr. Arafat had been denied a visa to the U.S. by the Reagan State Department because it found that, despite his claims that he had abandoned terror, he was directing terrorist acts through such front groups as Force 17 and the Hawari Organization.
At the first meeting between U.S. and PLO representatives in December 1988, the Americans told the PLO--according to a list of `taking points' recently published by the Israeli government--that the dialogue would be broken off if the PLO resumed terrorism: `No American administration can sustain the dialogue if terrorism continues by the PLO or any of its factions.' In addition, the U.S. required the PLO to `publicly disassociate' itself from `terrorism by any Palestinian groups operating anywhere.' Finally, the U.S. said that it expected the PLO to condemm any terrorist act carried out by `any element of the PLO' and to expel that element from the PLO.
The Bush administration maintains that the PLO has met those conditions. Monday's State Department report says, `the PLO has adhered to its commitment undertaken in 1988 to renounce terrorism.'
But what about the numerous terrorist attacks on Israel since December 1988? The State Department report reluctantly acknowledges that nine `border attacks'--the new diplomatic euphemism for terrorist attacks--against Israel have been-launched by `constituent groups of the PLO' over the past 14 months. Those incidents do not invalidate the report's conclusion, the report says, because `the intended target of the attack in which the report concedes that `civilians appeared to be the target.' But the three attacks directed at civilians were, the report insists, neither authorized nor approved by Mr. Arafat or the PLO Executive Committee.
All of this is dangerously misleading or positively untrue. The State Department report omits any mention of the multiple terrorist attacks carried out by groups that sit on the PLO Executive Committee, including raids by Mr. Arafat's Fatah group. Constituent groups of the PLO have openly taken credit for more than 18 attempted terrorist attacks on Israel from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the Mediterranean over the past 14 months. In the West Bank and
Gaza, many Palestinians have been murdered at the explicit--and documented--direction of the PLO and Fatah.
As for the nine PLO that the State Department report does acknowledge, it is not true that there is no evidence about their targets. There is clear and compelling evidence that the intended target of each one of them was civilian.
To take just one example: On Jan. 26, three guerrillas armed with machine guns, grenades and explosives attempted to penetrate the northern Israeli border from Lebanon. Intercepted by Israeli soldiers, the squad was killed in a shootout. In the terrorists' possession, besides weapons, was a man revealing one--and only one--target: a kibbutz called Misgav Am. The group that claimed responsibility for the abortive Misgav Am attack--as well as five others that were equally unsuccessful--is the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which sits on the PLO Executive Committee. One of the DFLP's senior officials, Yasser abd al-Rabbu, is the head of the PLO delegation to the U.S.-PLO dialogue in Tunis.
Confronted with this accumulation of evidence, State Department spokesman Adam Shub averred: `None of the cross-border attacks has succeeded, so we don't know what the targets would have been. Therefore we can't call them terrorist. We don't know what they were planning.' The State Department dismisses the written evidence from the Misgav Am raid as `inconclusive.' When offered transcripts of the confessions of captured terrorists by the Israeli government, the State Department said that the interrogations were not `reliable.' When offered an opportunity to interview the captured guerrillas firsthand, the U.S. refused.
When the Bush administration finds itself unable to deny that an attack occurred, it blames some rogue Palestinian element, never the PLO itself. As Monday's report puts it, `We have no evidence in those cases or any others that the actions were authorized or approved by the PLO Executive Committee.'
But this is to misunderstand how the PLO works. The PLO is an umbrella organization, and its central committees do not attempt to control the operations of its member groups. The issue is not, what does the PLO Executive Committee order or authorize; the issue is, are the groups that constitute the PLO complying with the commitment they collectively made to the U.S. in December 1988? As State Department spokesman Charles Redman said in March 1989, `If the PLO cannot or will not exercise such control, it raises questions concerning the commitment undertaken in the name of the PLO--indeed, questions about the PLO's ability to carry out its commitments.'
The Bush administration is particularly at pains to avoid criticism of Mr. Arafat's own Fatah wing of the PLO. On Dec. 5, five guerrillas infiltrated the Israeli Negev from the Egyptian Sinai. They carried no identification and the labels in their clothes have been cut out--all they had were Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and 51 grenades. Israeli soldiers intercepted them.
Faced with incontestable documentation that the five were affiliated with Fatah, John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian Affairs argued before Congress three weeks ago that while `there may have been Fatah members involved,' they were `operating without sanctions from their leadership.' In private conversation, though, State Department officials have admitted Fatah sponsorship of the attack. It is highly unlikely that Mr. Arafat, a man who insists on approving the smallest actions of his Fatah organization, down to the purchase of its fax machines, could have been unaware of it. The attack is not mentioned in the State Department report.
The contortions the Bush administration goes through to protect the PLO can verge on the grotesque. Last August, a Palestinian fundamentalist from Gaza wrenched the steering wheel of an Israeli bus away from the driver. The bus plunged into a ravine; 15 Israelis and one American were killed. The terrorist act was captured on television, and within six hours of the incident, the Israeli government had provided a detailed accounting of the attack.
The usual unnamed State Department official termed the event `senseless' and `tragic'--but categorically refused to label it an act of terrorism.
Only after two days had elapsed--and after a bitter Israeli protest that the Bush administration's failure to condemn the murder gave a `license to kill to every Palestinian individual or organization'--did the State Department see fit to label it a terrorist attack. Why the two day delay? A State Department spokesman said at the time that the U.S. had only belatedly acquired the necessary information. But in fact, according to a senior U.S. official, the real reason was that the Bush administration was afraid that the mass slaying had been a PLO operation. Only when PLO responsibility was ruled out did the administration feel free to call it a terrorist operation.
Last summer, the Israelis dispatched Yigal Carmon, the Israeli government's adviser on counter-terrorism, to Washington with proof--maps, documents, leaflets--that, despite the American `talking points,' PLO groups had not ceased their terrorist raids. He also brought tapes of speeches in Arabic by Mr. Arafat in which he condoned terrorist attacks.
State Department officials at first refused to meet with Mr. Carmon, before finally agreeing to a perfunctory meeting. But the Bush administration apparently did not feel confident that others would find Mr. Carmon's documents quite so uninteresting--so he was instructed not to speak to Congress and the media.
On March 1, Secretary of State James Baker testified before Congress, `. . . we have not received or seen evidence of complicity or encouragement or acquiescence by [Mr. Arafat] of terrorist activity.' If Mr. Baker has not seen the evidence, it is because he has ordered his underlings not to collect it.