Clinton Needs to Get Deportee Issue Right
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.