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World - Middle East

Israeli court defuses controversy over PLO offices

Decision postponed until after elections

May 11, 1999
Web posted at: 8:13 a.m. EDT (1213 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Less than a week before the Israeli elections, the nation's highest court defused the potentially explosive issue of closing PLO offices in Jerusalem on Tuesday by ordering the government to show why it failed to reach a compromise agreement.

The high court issued an injunction for one week -- until May 18 -- to allow the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond to an action filed by Israeli peace activists.

The decision means the government cannot act on the closure order before next Monday's general balloting. Opponents of Netanyahu charged that his decision to close three of the offices at Orient House was a political ploy to show his toughness in dealing with the Palestinians.

The court's action headed off a potentially violent confrontation for the immediate future. Left undetermined is what effect Netanyahu's actions have had on his flagging numbers in the polls.

After the government responds, the court has two options: It can agree to hear the case that the government failed to bargain adequately, or it can throw out the case, allowing the government to go ahead with the closing order.

Netanyahu had ordered that the three offices be closed Monday, saying they were carrying out political activities on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, something the PLO has denied.

A flurry of negotiations followed Monday between Israeli Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani and the PLO. Kahalani gave the Palestinians until 7 p.m. local time (noon EDT) to accept an Israeli compromise that would have closed two of the three offices.

The Palestinians, after consultations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, rejected that proposal and made a counter offer, according to Jawad Boulous, a PLO attorney. However, that offer was rejected by the Israelis and the order to close the offices was served on Boulous around 10 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT).

The Palestinians had 24 hours to file an appeal, but that was done for them by a group of Isreali peace activists who asked Israel's High Court of Justice to block the order.

Orient House -- where the offices are located -- has been a symbol for Palestinians who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state. It has acted as a lightening rod for Netanyahu and Israeli right-wing parties who have vowed the Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel.

The Palestinians have said they will not allow the Israeli police to come in. They also warned there would be rioting if the offices are closed.

Netanyahu's opponents, as well as the Palestinians, have accused Netanyahu of attempting to provoke a potentially violent confrontation in an attempt to galvanize his flagging support among the right-wing parties that have supported him in the past.

In the latest poll, Ehud Barak, the candidate of the One Israel coalition, was leading Netanyahu 45 percent to 37 percent. Barak has been gaining among Israeli voters who came to Israel from Russia, compromise the largest voting block, and favor a peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's coalition is made up of conservative, orthodox, and right-wing parties who oppose the declaration of a Palestinian state.

The poll taken for Israel Channel 2 Television, shows that if Center Party candidate Yitzhak Mordechai and Arab candidate Azmi Bishara were to withdraw from the race, Barak would win outright with 52 percent of the vote to 40 for Netanyahu.

In ordering the offices closed, Netanyahu singled off the office of PLO representative Faisal Husseini who he said was welcoming foreign ambassadors, in effect operating as a foreign office for the Palestine Authority.

Under the Oslo According, the Authority has no official standing in Jerusalem.

The United States had also attempted to persuade the Netanyahu and the Israeli government to go slow and not provoke a crisis over Orient House.

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