WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in meetings this week with President Clinton, has failed to persuade the United States to reopen the issue of 396 Palestinians deported by Israel to southern Lebanon. This issue could stymie efforts to restart Arab-Israeli peace negotiations at the end of April, according to diplomatic and Palestinian sources.
But the US and Egypt say they are both confident the Palestinians - who left the peace talks in protest last December - will return to the peace table on the reopening date of April 20.
A key aide to Mr. Mubarak, Osama al-Baz, leaves for Tunis today with an invitation for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat to meet with Mubarak on Saturday in Cairo. And Mubarak says he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in coming days to speed up the deportees' return.
But a Washington-based Palestinian with close ties to the PLO leader says he doubts that the Palestinians will return to the table now that Mubarak has failed to persuade the US to pressure Israel further on the deportation issue.
"[The Palestinians] are more solid in their stand than before," he said.
"Either Mubarak failed to get concessions from Clinton or he didn't try," a diplomat in Washington says. "The possibility of a negative decision by the Arabs after today has increased."
The deportation issue has been a rallying point for the Arabs since last December's expulsions. Arab governments and the Palestinians have been using it to test the Clinton administration's understanding of the Palestinian issue and the US commitment to evenhandedness in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The Clinton administration has maintained since February that an agreement between the US and Israel - under which all the deportees would be returned by the end of this year - has settled the issue. But the Palestinians have rejected it.
Last week, after long sessions in Washington, the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks said a package of assurances offered by the Clinton administration, to come into effect only after peace negotiations resume, was not enough.
And Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Damascus late last month, postponed a decision on whether to return to the peace talks until after Mubarak's meetings with US officials this week.
This put huge pressure on the Egyptions, who increased the stakes by suggesting just days before the Clinton meeting that they would urge Washington to pressure Israel now for the deportees' return by August or September.
In the end, the Mubarak-Clinton tete-a-tete yielded nothing for the Arabs. In a news conference after the meeting, Mr. Clinton said Mr. Rabin had "taken a forthright and open stand in trying to reach out to the Palestinians" and that "it is enough to get people back to the table." Mubarak did not object.
A senior US official, speaking on background, said that "President Mubarak is going back convinced that the US has done its utmost" on the deportation issue.
On the deportees, Dr. Al-Baz, Mubarak's chief adviser, told the Monitor that in his talks with Clinton, Mubarak said "what was done by the US was good. We said it needed one additional thing." But before the Egyptians could elaborate specific proposals, US officials declined to consider any further moves. The Egyptians then said they would discuss the deportee issue with Rabin themselves, he said.
Egypt must now convince Mr. Arafat that the Palestinians should be at the peace table and persuade Israel to announce a speedy return of the deportees before the April start up of the talks. The fact that the US has endorsed Rabin's moves on the deportees makes Cairo's job even tougher.
In fact, Arab governments should not be surprised by Cairo's inability to sway the US and by its distaste for disagreement with Washington. Sorely dependent on the US for $2.1 billion in annual aid and for Washington's support with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in negotiations that are now ongoing, Cairo can scant afford public differences with Washington. With prices soaring due to the lifting of currency controls and subsidies, Egypt is experiencing its worst instability in two decades. America n support is more crucial than ever and, informed sources say, the US is now weighing in on Egypt's side in negotiations with the IMF for the second phase of its reform program.
Now that the Palestinian delegation met in Washington with US officials last month, the remaining delegations to the peace talks - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel - will also come for preparatory consultations.
Sometime before the April 20 deadline, Arab officials will meet again to take a unanimous decision on whether or not to attend the talks.
But the outcome of the Clinton-Mubarak meeting may have already prejudiced some Arab governments. "What Clinton said on Tuesday is disturbing," said one diplomat with close ties to the peace process. "He went out of his way to praise Israel's forthcomingness when they were the ones that caused the problem" of the deportees. "This shows clear bias" toward Israel, the source said. "Until I saw the [Clinton-Mubarak] press conference, I thought the Arabs would come. But now, it doesn't bode well."