AFTER two days of talks in Damascus recently, the Arabs taking part in the Middle East peace talks sent President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a clear message about the importance of resolving the question of Palestinian deportees in Lebanon.
The foreign ministers of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization postponed a decision on whether to accept United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher's invitation to resume peace talks on April 20. In their communique, they "expressed concern at the American role, which has not led to the achievement of progress in the peace process so far" and noted that Mr. Rabin's recent visit to Washington "raised suspicions and increased Arab concerns on the future of the peace tal ks."
At a joint press conference at the end of Rabin's visit, Mr. Clinton noted that the two did not discuss the question of the Palestinian deportees. He said that the issue had been settled earlier when the US and Israel negotiated a mechanism for the deportees' return. The president either deliberately or unwittingly dismissed the principal reason why the Palestinians so far have refused to accept the US invitation to resume a ninth round of talks.
Clinton's dismissal of the issue in such a cavalier manner is mind-boggling. The arrangement between Mr. Christopher and Rabin was a non-starter because it did not address the core issue of Israel's "right" to deport. Deportation as a practice, let alone a right, is anathema to the Palestinians, as it is to the entire international community.
Acquiescence to deportation dooms the Palestinians to existence at the pleasure of Israeli authorities. Exercising a right to deport - even as an "exceptional measure" - validates Israel's claim to the occupied territories and ratifies its practice of uprooting Palestinians. What is at stake is whether or not Israel is an occupying power and whether or not Palestinians have a right to a national patrimony in the occupied territories. The Palestinian delegation to the talks was deeply and rightly hurt as the peace process became perceived as a step away from their rights, instead of toward achieving them.
This should not mean that a ninth round of talks will not take place. It does mean, however, that the Clinton administration should carefully study the reasons why the Palestinians declined the invitation to the next round of talks.
The peace process initiated in Madrid was based on a phased implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. With the end of the cold war and the defanging of Iraq as a military power, the strategic dependency of the Gulf states on the US, coupled with Egypt's separate peace with Israel, rendered the agenda, the terms of reference, and the conduct of the peace process skewed against Palestinian national rights. The structure and modalities of the process enabled Israel to depict
the promise of even the most minute compliance with any part of the US as a major concession. The US in turn markets such possible concessions as an inducement for the Arab parties to continue the peace process.
When Israel's minor compliances were depicted as concessions and accepted as such by the US, the flaws in the peace process began to surface. Only the unhealed wounds in the Arab body politic and the disarray in Arab ranks enabled the process to continue with no results except a sustained US blessing. Arab parties could not express their frustration, lest they be deemed rejectionist or unrealistic.
When the Labor government replaced Likud in Israel last year, the US felt that the process could be construed in a manner where pressure on the Arabs becomes justified, while placating Israel remains the instrument of dealing with it. The Clinton administration considered the process as a constant, but its flaws became intolerable to the Arabs when Israel persisted in its deportation policy.
THE escalation of repressive measures and violence in Israel prompted Rabin to cut short his US trip. The compromise solution, however well-intentioned and negotiated by Christopher with Israel, could not defuse the situation. While on his listening tour of Arab capitals, it appears that Christopher wanted to hear what he wanted to hear. He listened to the Palestinians explain the importance of resolving the deportation issue; he also listened to Lebanon describe the relevance of reintroducing UN Securit y Council Resolution 425 into the framework of the peace process in order to ensure Lebanon's sovereignty in the south. Yet by issuing the invitations it seems he listened to the Palestinians and the Lebanese, but did not hear them.
This brings to the forefront a very serious flaw that, unless rectified, can detonate an already volatile situation. The flaw appears in Christopher's statement that the "Palestinians need to recognize that their interest lay in pursuing peace talks ... at the end of the day that will be the controlling reality." In declining to receive the invitation, the Palestinians are saying that the US is right about the reality but not necessarily right when it describes it as "controlling."
There are two asymmetries in the peace process. One is between the Arabs and Israel, reinforced by Clinton's reaffirmation of the US commitment to Israel's military edge over the Arabs, a fact grudgingly accepted since the Camp David agreements. The second governs the Arab parties. Syria, the strongest, has the least at stake; the Palestinians, the weakest, have the most at stake. It is this asymmetry that Israel hopes to exploit. For this reason, Rabin, with some kind of US support, is dangling the pros pect of a nebulous withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a clearer Syrian distance (preferably a separate peace) from the Palestinian cause and demands. If this tactic fails, Rabin's government will try to respond to US pleas to soften its oppressive measures and violations of human rights in the occupied territories in return for Palestinian acceptance of an Israeli definition of "self-governing authority."
The deportation of more than 400 Palestinians upset the equation. Rabin's visit to the US was designed to ensure that the peace process is resumed in accordance with Israel's agenda. To achieve this objective, the issue of the deportees was subsumed within the broader concern with Islamic fundamentalism. Rabin and the pro-Israel lobby now suggest that Israel's deportation of Hamas sympathizers supports the moderate Arab states engaged in their own challenges from Islamic fundamentalists. Besides the emba rrassment that such a suggestion causes the so-called "moderates," it could lead Americans to misread the overall Arab situation. Moreover, Israel's intense effort to marginalize the deportation issue is a means to avoid admitting that it is actually an occupying power in the occupied territories.
While the present disarray among Arab states might lend temporary credence to Rabin's strategy, any signal that such a strategy is a determinant of the peace process is bound to undermine it, throwing the Middle East into the turbulence that the process ostensibly seeks to avoid. Indeed, Syria will not under any circumstances favor, let alone sign, a separate peace treaty with Israel, even in exchange for the entire Golan Heights. This because of historical and geopolitical factors, as well as its procla imed role. Moreover, the legacy of its national, ideological, and emotional bonds with the Palestinian people constitutes an insurmountable barrier.
Treating Rabin's approach to the peace process as indicative of Israel's willingness to "take risks" for peace further reinforces the impression that Israel is making concessions, rather then complying with UN resolutions and the norms of international law and the Geneva Convention. Thus, it is Israel's agenda that appears to set the course for the resumed peace process.
Herein lies the dilemma for the Arab parties, none of whom want to be absent from the ninth round of talks, yet who find themselves excluded by the Clinton administration from the discourse. Even if the Arab parties join the ninth round, they do so in deference to US power rather than in expectation of concrete results.