Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, turned down a chance to meet with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat just days before the U.S. reversed its longstanding policy of refusing any direct dialogue with the group.
Although both the congressman and the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization were guests in the palace of the Saudi Arabian king earlier this month, Owens said they never saw each other.The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia asked Owens if he wanted to see Arafat, but the congressman said he was obliged to say no because of American policy.
"I would have liked to take the opportunity to size him up," Owens said, adding that it was "not inconceivable" that he might meet with the Arab leader during a trip to the Middle East tentatively planned for next March.
Owens toured the troubled region between Dec. 5 and Dec. 22 on behalf of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He visited Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel in addition to Saudi Arabia.
Although the trip had been planned for months, his timing could not have been better. In November, the PLO had acknowledged Israel's right to exist while calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
The U.S. finally began direct talks with the PLO in December, after Arafat also denounced terrorism. Before the talks began, the U.S. government had refused to allow Arafat into the country to make a speech before the United Nations.
Owens said several foreign leaders expressed their frustration at the American action. He has himself joined in the criticism of Secretary of State George Shultz's decision to bar Arafat from the United States.
That decision, the congressman said, helped make Arafat a hero. He labeled it a "geopolitical blunder" and said Saudi Arabia and the other the Arab nations that protested the action had every right to be upset.
"They felt they had moderated their position and then Shultz kicked the rug out from under them," Owens said.
Owens said the turn of events in the region confirmed his long-held belief that there can be peace in the Middle East. "I was optimistic before, although I didn't have much to pin my optimism on," he said.
He said he continues to be a strong supporter of Israel, but said the country should be talking to the PLO and taking a "more benign" approach to administering the occupied territories.
Those concerns will not likely affect the size of foreign aid appropriations to Israel made in the upcoming session of Congress, he said. "It's pretty safe this season," Owens said.
Owens will give a report to the House committee on the status of the peace process. One of his assignments on the committee has been the Middle East.
Owens' trip was his fourth to the Middle East this year and his second at government expense. He said he has made more visits to the area than any other member of Congress.