PLO chief tiptoes into Israeli homes

THE first interview on Israel's state-run television with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), brought remarkably little political or public reaction yesterday. But the silence that greeted the event only underlines its significance as another turning-point in Israeli- PLO relations.

For several months there has been a gradual thaw in Israel's perception of the PLO, and an increase in informal contacts. Particularly since the emergence of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, as a visible new threat, Israelis have begun to look more kindly on the PLO, although it is still officially described as a terrorist organisation.

A year ago the idea of Mr Arafat addressing Israelis in their living rooms was unthinkable, and would have brought massive condemnation. In the presence of Yitzhak Shamir, the former Likud prime minister, the name PLO could hardly be mentioned. Any Israeli who had contact with the PLO risked a heavy jail sentence, as did Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied territories.

Three days ago, however, the Israeli parliament lifted its long- standing law banning Israelis from meeting PLO officials. Mr Rabin reluctantly supported the lifting of the ban, although he has declined to change the government's policy of refusing to negotiate with the PLO. The repeal of this law made possible, on Thursday night, the transmission of an interview with Mr Arafat, in which he directly asked the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for a summit meeting.

The Prime Minister's office immediately rejected such a meeting, but said little else in response. The right-wing Likud party offered no condemnation of the Arafat interview.

Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian peace team's spokeswoman, said: 'This was a genuine attempt by Mr Arafat to reach out to the Israeli people. I hope this kind of interview will start a process of de- demonisation of the PLO that will serve the cause of peace.'

Mrs Ashrawi added that she believed, eventually, the growth in contacts would lead to direct relations between the Israeli government and the PLO. 'It must come if there is to be peace,' she said.

In the interview, conducted in Tunis by the veteran Israeli free- speech campaigner, Abie Nathan, Mr Arafat said he hoped the peace process could continue, if Israel changed its position on the deportation of 413 Palestinians.

(Photograph omitted)

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