AS a new United Nations envoy prepares to visit Israel to try to resolve the impasse over 415 Palestinian deportees, the government here has welcomed the UN initiative as an opportunity to get off the hook of international condemnation.
Chinmaya Gharekhan, a senior Indian diplomat named special envoy by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is expected here to address both the immediate humanitarian problem of ensuring food to the radical Islamist deportees, stranded on a freezing southern Lebanon hillside, and the political question of their ultimate fate. He will take up where UN Undersecretary-General James Jonah left off last week.
"We welcome [the mission] because we feel that if there is a solution, it lies in quiet diplomacy, away from the media," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Evyatar Manor said.
Mr. Gharekhan's trip to Israel and Lebanon also means that the UN Security Council is unlikely to meet again on the deportees issue until he has had a chance to mediate. Mr. Boutros-Ghali warned Israel on Jan. 4 that he would likely recommend that the Council take punitive measures unless the deportees are allowed home.
The new envoy's mission "offers a breathing space and postpones the convening of the Security Council, which we feel is a positive step," Mr. Manor said.
Lebanon refused to accept the men when they were expelled by Israel on Dec. 17, and is refusing to do anything that might indicate the Lebanese government is responsible for them. Israel argues that the deportees are now on Lebanese soil and will not be allowed back until their deportation terms expire in two years.
Although nothing has changed on the ground since Mr. Jonah's mission, "with the passage of time there is a bit of perspective, and people soften up a little," Manor suggested.
But the passage of time has also given the lie to Israeli claims that the deportation of the radical Islamists, belonging mainly to the militant Palestinian group Hamas, "crushed the head of the Hamas snake" and would stem attacks on Israelis.
On one day, Jan. 3, Palestinians slashed the throat of a Jewish construction worker near Tel Aviv, a small bomb exploded on a bus from Haifa to Jerusalem, and suspected Hamas militants stabbed and bludgeoned an Israeli secret police agent to death.
Seven suspected Palestinian collaborators have been found dead in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza since the deportations, indicating that Hamas members are as active as ever.
The death of the police agent, Haim Nachmani, "only goes to show that we were not the ones doing the killings," Sheikh Bassem al-Shami, a deported leader of the Islamic Jihad movement, told Reuters. "And as long as we are deported, it will only give the fighters more reason to deal the Israelis more blows."
Most of the deportees "are public people, well known to our community," said Jamal al-Khoudary, deputy president of the Gaza Engineers' Association, elected on an Islamic Bloc platform. "They are not secret people who work underground, and they do not commit violent acts."
Nonetheless, Israeli public support for the deportations remains solid, with 91 percent backing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's decision, according to a poll in the daily Yediot Ahronot. This has doubtless strengthened Mr. Rabin's resolve not to allow the deportees back, especially as "there is no question that he sees this as a test of his own resiliency, and of the resiliency of his government," says Harry Wall, local head of the Anti Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, an American Jewish organization.
THE Lebanese government seems equally adamant that the deportees can only go back home, refusing them even passage through Lebanon to another destination.
Hoping that Gharekhan will offer "imaginative ideas" to break the deadlock, Manor said, Israel would like to see a third country offer the deportees refuge. But it is hard to imagine which country could be persuaded to effectively condone the deportations by doing so, especially when the deportees themselves say they will leave their encampment only to go home.
While 10 of them, whom Israel acknowledges having deported by mistake, are awaiting an agreement on how exactly they can get back to Israel, the rest are looking to the Israeli Supreme Court, whose ruling Jan. 17 on a number of petitions will decide the legality of the deportations.
Should Gharekhan fail to find a diplomatic solution, a new UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against Israel will almost certainly be moved. Though the United States would almost equally certainly veto such a step, the heightened tensions could only damage the Middle East peace process, officials here worry.
Already, Israel's talks with the Palestinians are in danger. The deportations "dealt a death blow to the credibility of the peace process," Haidar Abdel Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation said on Jan. 4. "We cannot go back to the negotiating table as long as these people are not allowed to go back to their homes."