IN what appeared to be a deliberately ambivalent decision yesterday, Israel's Supreme Court slapped the government's wrist over the manner in which it expelled 415 Palestinians last month, but let the expulsions stand.
The seven judges ruled unanimously that the Israeli military order under which the "Hamas" radical Islamists were expelled was illegal, since it denied them the right of prior appeal. This did not, however, void the expulsions, they decided.
The court's insistence that military authorities must now allow appeals in person offered possible ways out of the crisis that threatens to torpedo the Middle East peace talks. But it is far from certain such opportunities will be taken.
Nor is the ruling likely to avert a United Nations Security Council debate, scheduled for Monday, on Israel's failure to abide by resolution 799, calling for the expellees' immediate return. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab countries are expected to call for sanctions against the Jewish state to enforce compliance.
Lawyers who had petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the expulsions claimed partial victory, saying the judges had upheld the right of appeal before an expulsion can be carried out.
"My understanding is that the court is telling the government `this is illegal, now reconsider'," says Avigdor Feldman, a lawyer representing the families of several expellees. "It did not quash the deportations totally because it did not want to embarrass the government. But the message is more than a hint."
The ruling "opens several doors before the government," says Ziyyad abu Ziyyad, a prominent Palestinian. "There is the possibility now before the government of deciding the deportees can come back into Israeli territory and put forward their appeals."
Government officials, however, stressed that the court had upheld the deportations themselves, and merely demanded that appeals be instituted. "All the government was told was to make sure that these people can appear personally in front of an appeals committee," says Uri Dromi, director of the Government Press Office.
"Where, when, and how that happens is up to the government to decide," he added.
That decision, while the expellees are living in a makeshift camp in southern Lebanon, presents a number of difficulties. Israeli Attorney General Yosef Harish suggested earlier this week that the expellees would be allowed to meet their lawyers at a special installation at a crossing point between the Israeli controlled `security zone' and the rest of Lebanon.
Such a location for military appeals tribunals would be unacceptable, Mr. Feldman argued. "A judicial appeal is a sovereign act and must be held on sovereign [Israeli] territory," he insisted.
The issue is complicated by the fact that the expellees say they will refuse to appeal.
"We do not want to appeal the deportation because we insist on the implementation of resolution 799, which is the only acceptable means for our return," said Hamas spokesman Abdul Aziz Rantisi on Monday.
Other Palestinian figures also ruled out the prospect of appeals. "Individual appeals are a non-starter," says Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, "because they do not deal with the basic problem that these people were not charged as individuals. It was a case of collective punishment."
Informed sources say that given Israel's anxiety to resolve the crisis, any expellee who did appeal would be assured of a sympathetic hearing. And now that the Supreme Court has upheld the deportations, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may feel able to make conciliatory moves.
"Since the court did not get the government off the hook" by ordering the expellees' return, says Akiva Eldar, political analyst for the daily Ha'aretz, "Rabin has to find his own way down the tree. But he is in a better position now to offer concessions ... to say he did the right thing."
A resolution of the crisis is important to Israel, both to help relations with the new United States administration, and to get the peace process moving. These considerations, some officials here have suggested, might prompt Rabin to shorten the terms of the two-year expulsions, to order the army to review some expulsion orders independent of any appeal, or to find other compromises acceptable to the international community.
Yet the expellees - Hamas sympathizers opposed to the peace process - have little reason to seek a compromise. "They know that as long as they are a nuisance they are a problem for Israel, and they want to squeeze this lemon until it is dry," Mr. Eldar says.
The Israeli government's main concern now is to head off any UN Security Council vote for sanctions. Although officials here say they are confident that the US would veto any sanctions proposal, the PLO is circulating plans it hopes would attract universal support.
Deliberately mild, the PLO initiative would merely forbid trade and dealings with Israeli companies involved in activities in the occupied territories that violate the Geneva Convention.