ISRAEL and the Palestinians are deadlocked over the fate of Palestinian deportees stranded in southern Lebanon after a United Nations envoy failed yesterday to mediate a compromise.
Beyond that failure, however, Palestinians are hoping the United Nations and other Arab diplomatic moves will keep the international spotlight focused on the deportation issue at least until President-elect Clinton assumes office Jan. 20.
In that way, regardless of how the deportees' plight is resolved, they hope the issue can be used to force quick US intervention in the peace process and put pressure on Israel for concessions.
But Israeli government opinion appears divided on how much long-term damage the deportations will do to Israel's negotiating position.
"Israel may have to bring something of a carrot after such a big stick," says an Israeli official close to the dovish camp of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "That may come in the form of further concessions in Washington, or in the opening of channels to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]."
Israelis close to the hawkish camp of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, however, are not willing to admit Israel may have to pay for the deportations with concessions to Arab negotiators. Says a source near the prime minister, "Why should we pay a bigger price to promote the peace process with Jordan and Syria or the Palestinians when they are facing the same threat from Islamic fundamentalism that we are trying to fight?"
Seeking to quell the storm of international criticism over the Dec. 17 expulsions, Israel admitted yesterday that 10 Palestinian deportees had been mistakenly expelled and could return. Israel also agreed to a one-time relief supply effort to the deportees from Israeli territory if Lebanon would reciprocate. It has not.
West Bank Palestinian leaders say any compromise is simple capitulation to the Israeli deportation orders and they are sticking to their position that the only solution to the crisis is to return all of the men to the West Bank and Gaza.
"It's just a stalemate," says a West Bank Palestinian source close to the Palestinian peace delegation, referring to the standoff.
The ticking clock is the welfare of the deportees themselves. Israeli officials say they believe the deportees huddled in tents are receiving enough supplies from Lebanese sources to keep them alive, despite official Lebanese government refusal to allow relief trucks into the zone.
But Palestinians say supplies are insufficient for the snowy mountain conditions and that several deportees are sick or wounded, one seriously. The death of any deportee could touch off new unrest in the territories as well as a new round of international condemnations of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Rabin yesterday called on Western countries concerned with the deportees' plight to offer them asylum until the nine-to-24-month expulsion orders expire.
But a Palestinian spokesman said the deportees "should not have been deported in the first place, therefore there is no reason to send them to a third country."
Instead, the Palestinians are continuing to press their case for the deportees' return in the UN, the Arab League, and the Israeli courts. Attorneys for the deportees yesterday filed the third in a series of appeals to Israel's Supreme Court demanding that the entire group be returned due to procedural mistakes.
On Tuesday night, government-controlled Israel Television featured the case of a 16-year-old West Bank youth, Bassam Sioury, whom Israel now concedes was deported as a result of mistaken identity. Prime Minister Rabin said yesterday that the boy would be permitted to return.
In the UN, meanwhile, non-aligned countries were reported mustering support for a second resolution denouncing Israel. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, following a meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat yesterday, said he hoped the deportees could be returned to Israeli-occupied land even if interned for a time.
Lebanon called for an emergency Arab summit, the first since the Gulf war, to adopt a unified stand on the deportation. Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel Meguid said Arab foreign ministers would meet Jan. 11.
Israelis close to the negotiations say the Palestinians are seeking to "play out the sense of urgency" created by the deportations so that the new US administration will take an active interest in the peace process.