PLEADING that the United Nations Security Council was only a few words away from an agreement to provide international protection to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, Finnish diplomats persuaded Council members to extend their negotiations for yet another meeting yesterday. Council wranglings over the proposal began in early November, following the Council's initial condemnation of the deaths of at least 20 Palestinians shot by Israeli police at Jerusalem's Temple Mount Oct. 8. The Council also denounced the Israeli government's refusal to cooperate with a UN investigation of the killings.
A senior British diplomat argued privately that the protracted Council consultations on the measures were well worth the trouble, because they are linked to the Council's first formal endorsement of an international peace conference to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute. This is seen as a major United States policy concession.
The endorsement, contained in a separate Council statement, repeats language used recently by US Secretary of State James Baker III, who said that the US now favors a properly structured international conference ``at an appropriate time.''
The main sticking point, nonaligned diplomats reported this week, was the US argument that the ``parties'' must be left to decide when the conference should be convened. By this, the diplomats explained, the US was trying to preserve an Israeli veto over the process.
Most Council members, however, agree that the timing of the conference should follow a solution to the Gulf crisis.
At US insistence, the statement notes that ``the Arab-Israeli conflict and the situation between Iraq and Kuwait must be addressed independently, each on its own merits.'' The US threatened to veto earlier drafts if there appeared to be any concession to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who has tried to link his withdrawal from Kuwait to a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.
Who would sponsor the international conference is left unspecified in the Council's statement. It would not necessarily be held under UN auspices - a formula anathema to Israel until now - but could be convened jointly by the US and the Soviet Union.
Fearing that the US intended to water down their proposal beyond recognition, four of the Council's seven nonaligned members attempted to press the Council to a vote at least five times over the past two weeks. Their aim, apparently, was to keep the reference to the conference in the text of the resolution, hoping that American reluctance to disappoint its Arab Gulf coalition partners would compel US acquiescence.
The resolution now authorizes UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to monitor and report on the situation facing Palestinian civilians, using UN personnel as necessary. The resolution also asks Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar, in cooperation with the International Red Cross, to see if the 164 states party to the Fourth Geneva Convention wish to discuss how to ensure Israeli compliance with the humanitarian accords that protect civilians in time of war or under occupation.
``In the short term, these are pretty small steps, but they could have some impact on the ground,'' a Western diplomat says. ``It would also be the third consecutive resolution that the US has voted for, concerning the occupied territories ... and it does emphasize the role of the UN there.''
The resolution also deplores Israel's decision to resume deportations of Palestinian in the occupied territories. The four men under sentence are all members of Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist movement at odds with the Palestine Liberation Organization over tactics to intensify the three-year-old Palestinian uprising.
Coincidentally, Iran recently stepped up its support for what it calls the ``Islamic Revolution of the Palestinian People.'' The Iranian Consultative Assembly recently passed a law authorizing large-scale support for ``the families of the martyrs, the disabled, prisoners and mission persons in the occupied territories, as well as the martyrs from other parts of the world who gave their life for the liberation of Palestine.''