Israel's expropriation of occupied West Bank land could threaten Washington with an embarrassing legal tangle. Theoretically, the move could force suspension of all US aid to the Jewish state.
What has made the controversial move even more sensitive, according to local lawyers, is that land seized last December near Jerusalem encroached on plots belonging to "Palestinian-Americans." They are Arab residents who had moved to the United States and acquired US citizenship.
Their American passports would enable them to appeal to US officials, not just Israel, to reverse the seizures. Some Palestinian activists are privately promoting this tack.
At least two Palestinian-Americans from the village affected by the more recent March expropriation plans reportedly joined a group protesting the move to US State Department officials March 14. But attorneys and political activists in Jerusalem point out that the exact boundaries of this latest expropriation have not yet been indicated, so it is impossible to say which landowners might be affected.
US diplomats stress that it is not yet clear whether any formal request for American intervention has been, or will be, made by expropriation victims. But if so, the officials acknowledge, Washington might be backed into an unsavory choice between embarrassment and exacerbated friction with Israel.
Even in the best of circumstances, expropriation appeal can prove a delicate business. But the desired end result is usually clear: to persuade the expropriating country to move toward rapid, and full, compensation for any property taken.
US law, in a principle enunciated by the so-called Hickenlooper amendment to the 1962 foreign-aid bill, requires suspension of American assistance to the foreign government involved if that aim cannot be achieved.
The catch in the case of the Israeli expropriation is that Washington does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over the seized areas -- arguing that all of the West Bank of the Jordan and the eastern, formerly Arab-controlled sector of Jerusalem is occupied land.
In the American view, Israel has no right to take private land there -- except for indisputable security reasons -- compensation or no compensation.
Palestinian-Americans, likewise, seem to want the land -- not compensation. They now might call on Washington to back this position with action.
No matter what happens, few Western diplomats here expect that the Carter administration would countenance a cutoff of aid to Israel -- particularly at a time of delicate peace negotiations, demanding presidential politics, and of already cooling US-Israeli relations.
US officials point out that within the letter of State Department rules, diplomats could simply refuse to press expropriation cases on the grounds that this could endanger American relations with Israel.
This could well prove embarrassing, given Washington's repeated emphasis of its opposition to Israeli expansion on occupied land -- opposition already cast into doubt, in Arab eyes, by the recent US about-face on the March 1 Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements.
US diplomats also note that refusal of a Palestinian-American request for help theoretically could be challenged in American courts.
Diplomatic practice, meanwhile, requires that landholders protesting expropriation exhaust local legal avenues before asking their own embassy for help. Here, this means going through Israeli courts -- since Washington officially does "deal" with Israel as ruler of the occupied territory, though not as its lawful owner.
Palestinian Americans claiming title to the land expropriated last December are doing just that. Of some 40 claimants who appealed to the Israeli high court March 17, one of the attorneys handling the case said, 10 hold US passports.
Local lawyers also foresee a court challenge to the more recent expropriation move -- a case complicated by the fact that the land in question falls inside the limits of Jerusalem as expanded and annexed by Israel in 1967. The appeal, attorneys say, will wait until formal seizure papers have been received.
At stake in the two expropriation moves is about 1,480 acres near the Arab village of Beit Hanina, on rolling terrain just north of Jerusalem. The first parcel, about 350 acres, was taken for unspecified "public purposes." Israeli news reports at the time said the land apparenly would be used for a road to a settlement east of Jerusalem.
The second, much wider area is earmarked for a Jewish residential development.
Since Israeli officials have suggested no direct military purpose for the land moves, they are seen by US diplomats here as a clear contradiction of Washington's policy.
Pressed to predict what would happen if Palestinian-Americans asked the US government for help, the diplomats were reluctant to furnish detailed comment. But one replied, "Let's just say I'm glad the question is still hypothetical."