If the United States follows through on its threat to stop contributing to the World Health Organization for admitting the PLO, Washington will be doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Membership in the WHO is supposed to be limited to nation-states, and admitting the Palestine Liberation Organization would give the PLO more international recognition than it has achieved so far.More important, the WHO is the wrong place to determine the status of the PLO or the fate of a proposed Palestinian state. The place to decide such issues is in Middle East negotiations involving the Israelis and Arabs.

But the fact remains that even though the United States does not recognize the PLO as the government-in-exile of a Palestinian state, 98 of WHO's 166 members do.

WHO, by the way, is an arm of the United Nations. Even among the U.N.'s many critics, WHO ordinarily enjoys considerable admiration and support. That's because, in contrast to UNESCO, another U.N. agency from which the U.S. has withheld funds, WHO has not been blatantly anti-American and has accomplished much good.

Over the years, WHO has done outstanding work in checking such dread diseases as polio, leprosy, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. It also has made studies of medical health and of the standardization of health statistics and drawn up a code to control the marketing of infant formula in Third World countries. But WHO's greatest triumph so far has been the eradication of smallpox. From a strictly public health point of view, admitting the PLO would allow Palestinians to benefit from WHO and help the international agency achieve its goal of becoming a truly global operation.

Since the U.S. provides a quarter of WHO's annual operating budget, a withdrawal of Washington's financial support could cripple the agency and lead to much more sickness throughout the world. Is that really what the U.S. wants to be known for? The Bush administration should rethink its position on WHO. By all means, let's continue to resist official recognition of the PLO - but find a less harmful way of conducting that campaign.