Yesterday the minister of state at the Foreign Office, Douglas Hogg, met Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks in Washington, accompanied by two PLO officials. 'It was a warm, constructive and very useful meeting,' Mr Husseini said outside the Foreign Office afterwards.
'I think that the time has come for us to renew ministerial contact (with the PLO) and that's why we did it,' Mr Hogg said. 'We thought it would be useful and I believe that it was.'
So, three years after being sent into the corner because of its support for President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the PLO has been allowed back to join the top table with British government ministers. Not that the PLO has changed its policy towards Iraq. Indeed last month the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, was in Baghdad to receive the Medal of the Mother of All Battles from the Iraqi President.
However, the Foreign Office has come round to accepting the reality: that since Mr Husseini himself answers to the PLO leadership in Tunis, every device deployed by the British to avoid high-level contact with the organisation only caused inconvenience (lower-level contacts had never ceased: British diplomats in Tunis have regular chats with Mr Arafat). The absence of such talks only fuelled the Palestinians' sense of discrimination and victimisation.
In the past, the Foreign Office was afraid such a resumption of contacts would upset either the Americans or the Israelis, and thus impede rather than help the search for a solution. The shift in the Foreign Office's attitude was due to changed circumstances.
Specifically, Britain was worried that the furore over Israel's expulsion of more than 400 Palestinians associated with militant Muslim organisations would hold up the peace talks.
By restoring such ministerial contacts, Britain could show Palestinians in the occupied territories that there was international support for the resumption of the talks and that the PLO and the negotiating team were the only Palestinian party capable of reaching a settlement.
The Palestinians insisted that they would not return to the negotiating table unless the Israelis gave a commitment not to make any further deportations. Both Mr Hogg and Mr Husseini said they had discussed practical ways of overcoming the problem of the deportees, although they gave no details.
Mr Hogg will be able to hear at first hand what Israel might be prepared to do about the issue when he meets the visiting Israeli deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, tomorrow.
In Washington, officials said the US and Russia would issue formal invitations today for a resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace talks to be held in the US capital on 20 April.Reuse content