Israel's deportation of two elected Palestinian mayors following the slaying of five Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron last week has dealt a severe blow to the flagging Palestinian autonomy talks.
The US State Department issued a statement on May 6, noting that the Israeli authorities "have not stated that these individuals had any direct connection with the murders in Hebron, . . ." and saying the deportations violated international law and could make peace more difficult.
American officials had pinned high hopes on these two political figures, Mayor Muhammad Milhem of Halhul (population 15,000) and Mayor Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron (population 50,000).
Although both opposed autonomy as it is projected at present and were supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), they were considered the most attractive and credible West Bank leaders to turn to if a negotiating formula acceptable to the Palestinians ever emerges.
"There's really no one left to whom we can talk," one United States official said dejectedly after the expulsions.
Moreover, the Americans feel the deportations of elected officials undermine the concept of establishing an elected Palestinian council to run the autonomous West Bank, as called for by the Camp David accords.
Messrs. Kawasmeh and Milhem were considered important by Western diplomats because of their personal qualities and their political views. Both were members of the National Guidance Committee, an informal political directorate formed by predominantly left-leaning public figures a year and a half ago to coordinate West Bank opposition to the autonomy plan.
Of the important mayors on the committee, Western diplomats considered these two the most moderate. Mr. Kawasmeh, a short, plumpish Arab agricultural engineer who comes from one of Hebron's largest and wealthiest traditional families, maintained good ties with both Jordan and the PLO and with internal West Bank factions, including Muslim leaders and the communists.
Mr. Milhem, a sandy-haired, blue-eyed, ex-school teacher of modest means who wears baggy tweed suits and turtleneck sweaters and resembles a Palestinian Mr. Chips, impressed visitors with his charm and directness. He was frequently mentioned by Western diplomats, by foreign and Israeli journalists, and even by some of the Israeli military government officials who labeled him a radical, as the West Bank political figure with the most potential for national leadership.
Both men demanded the return of the entire Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza strip, and eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Both said publicly that economic and social ties with Jordan would have to be close, and both accepted the concept of Israeli and Palestinian states side by side along the pre-1967 war borders.
No suitable replacements for Messrs. Milhem and Kawasmeh are visible. The once-powerful pro-Jordanian notables in whom Israel is now showing interest are mostly elderly, less influential, and without heirs. The loss of these two men from the guidance committee probably will push it further to the left.
The renewal of political deportations by the Israelis seems to reflect government uncertainty here over how to control the deteriorating West Bank situation.
There had not been a political deportation here since 1976, prior to which Israel had expelled about 141 individuals in leadership positions, according to a study by Dr. Ann Lesch for the American Friends Service Committee. The two mayors were not allowed the right of appeal provided by the British mandate law under which they were deported.
Why was the deportation policy renewed? In the case of Mayors Milhem and Kawasmeh, Israeli officials accuse them of inflammatory remarks that, they say, created the climate for the Hebron attack.
The specific incident cited is a mass meeting held more than a month ago in a Hebron mosque at which the two allegedly called for "civil revolt" and the "fall of the Zionist empire." The meeting was held immediately after the Israeli Cabinet voted to permit settlement by right-wing Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) group in downtown Arab Hebron.
Some Israeli analysts believe that the expulsions derive from heavy Gush Emunim pressure on the West Bank's military government for a tougher line toward the West Bank Arabs. The Israeli press speculated before the Hebron ambush that the military government would ban the guidance committee and deport several of its members.
The Gush Emunim reportedly is still angry that Defense Minister Ezer Weizman backed down from deporting Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka last fall, after an international uproar followed his successful appeal to an Israeli high court. Since the Hebron affair, several additional mayors have been warned that they may be deported.
The military governor of the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, spelled out his views on permissible West Bank leadership when speaking to reporters at the site of the Hebron attack.
"It is impossible to give legitimization to political activity which only works in a negative way, saying 'no' to a peace treaty and 'no' to autonomy," he said. "We would be happy to improve the political activity which shows 'yes' for talks."