PALESTINIAN negotiators at the Middle East peace talks are hoping to use the crisis that has flared up over Israel's expulsion of 415 Palestinians from the occupied territories in order to change the rules of the United States-sponsored peace process.
And even as they formally notified Washington this week that they will not attend next month's scheduled resumption of the talks unless the expellees are returned home, they signaled their readiness to help solve the impasse.
The Palestinian delegation sent a letter to US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on Monday announcing that unless Israel complies with United Nations Security Council calls for the expellees' return, the Palestinians will suspend the talks.
But on Wednesday, Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini and delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi met Nissim Zvilli, secretary-general of the ruling Israeli Labor Party, for talks which reportedly reviewed possible ways of resolving the expulsion crisis.
In their letter to Mr. Eagleburger, the Palestinians called for a new approach to the peace process, altering the ground rules that have governed the talks since they were launched in Madrid 14 months ago. "This is the end of the process as it existed," Ms. Ashrawi says. "It worked itself out to its natural conclusion. Now we have to relaunch it so that it does not contain the seeds of its own destruction."
In a statement released after the meeting with Mr. Zvilli, echoing the letter to Eagleburger, the Palestinians demanded the "direct and official participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization" in the peace talks.
They also called for "a review of the framework of the negotiations," and urged the US and Russia, the talks' co-sponsors, to "take their full responsibilities as neutral third parties that can intervene more directly to guarantee that the parties abide by the principles of the process."
The move comes at a time when the Palestinians hope that incoming US President Clinton might be persuaded to make a fresh start in the talks, and follows expressions of disgust with the talks by Palestinian delegation leader Haider Abdel-Shafi.
Following his lead, and with their credibility among Palestinians in the occupied territories at an all-time low because of the meager fruits of 14 months of negotiations, the delegation decided that the expulsions were "a lethal blow" coming on top of continuous human rights violations by the Israeli occupation authorities, in Ashrawi's words.
Palestinian observers, however, recall previous occasions on which their delegation has climbed down from ultimatums such as this one, and efforts are underway behind the scenes to find a compromise over the expellees, according to foreign diplomats and Palestinian sources. "Creative thinking" is being exchanged between the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders, according to one source involved in the talks.
Ideas under discussion include staggering the return of the expellees, finding temporary political asylum for them in Europe, and putting them in detention in the Israeli-controlled "security zone" in South Lebanon.
"If there is a will, there are ways out," Ashrawi suggests. "If Israel wants to discuss how to return [the expellees] gradually, for example, the Palestinians would be ready to listen."
The Israelis, meanwhile, appear increasingly anxious to resolve the problem, as the prospect of a UN Security Council vote on sanctions looms.
Six more expellees were identified yesterday as having been seized by mistake, for a total of 16, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is understood to have agreed to let the International Committee of the Red Cross provide medical assistance to the tent camp in southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court is to meet on Sunday to hear nine petitions on behalf of the expellees. Were the court to find technical grounds for annulling the government's decision, "that would be the best way of saving face," says Abdul Hadi head of PASSIA, a Palestinian think-tank in East Jerusalem.