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The Habash Affair


When a terrorist is old and sick, is he a terrorist still? Is there a moral statute of limitations on airliner hijackings? Should justice be done, even if it destroys the diplomatic balance (terrorists accepting negotiations) that allows a hope of peace?

These and more moral questions are asked in the wake of the strange affair of George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who was spirited into France for medical attention and spirited out again when world outrage blew up like plastic explosive. The questions are asked, but not answered.

The PFLP is the extreme wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (making Yasser Arafat's Fatah the moderates), implicated in a string of terrorist outrages from 1968 to 1978, including the 1976 hijacking of a French airliner, and lesser violence thereafter, perhaps quiescent since peace talks began. Mr. Habash is a Palestinian, Christian-born, Marxist-Leninist, educated in Lebanon. He is a principal inventor of modern terrorism.

His three days in France were a disaster, medically, politically, morally and diplomatically. He was arrested in his hospital bed. Treatment stopped. Before France shipped him out, the countries not seeking his extradition were Israel and the United States. Israel's foreign minister said he was thinking about it. A French magistrate, investigating a PFLP arms cache found near Paris in 1986, never reached Mr. Habash. Two French physicians swore he was not fit medically to be examined judicially. Meanwhile, even the most moderate of Palestinians protested his incarceration.

French elected leaders insisted they had not been consulted on Mr. Habash's admission, though they did not believe each other. Five civil service officials resigned under pressure. This runs contrary to the French tradition that government ministers, not officials under them, take responsibility for sensitive decisions.

Politically, this is one more nail in the Socialist coffin. France is stuck through 1995 with a Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, and has a Socialist prime minister of his choosing, Edith Cresson, and a Socialist government. But the Socialists, who abandoned any recognizable socialism, have ruled too long, believe in nothing and have outworn their welcome. Polls trace their former vote oozing away. This will be tested in local elections next month and parliamentary elections next year. Mr. Mitterrand "co-habited" with a right-wing government in the late '80s and will have to again, soon.

The French right is now demanding the resignation of everyone in sight over the affair. This is normal politics, not to be taken at face value. Mr. Mr. Habash, 66, is clearly not well. The Socialist government of Mme. Cresson looks like the last vessel the old terrorist will have shot down.

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