ISRAEL may have solved its problems with the United States by agreeing Feb. 1 to bring back around 100 of the expelled Islamic extremists, but not with the Palestinians.
Although Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has averted the threat of United Nations sanctions against Israel over the issue, getting the Middle East peace talks restarted seems as problematic as ever.
"Right now it looks very grim," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.
The deal Mr. Rabin struck with Washington to repatriate one quarter of the expelled Palestinians, in return for the promise of a US veto of any sanctions resolution "reinforces our worst fears," Ms. Ashrawi said. "When it comes down to the nitty gritty, the Americans will find a way to bail the Israelis out. They are so clearly biased."
The Israeli Cabinet Feb. 1 approved Rabin's proposal to bring back around 100 of what he called the "lowest level" expellees during the next few days, and to cut in half the expulsion periods of the remaining 300.
The US administration agreed to veto any proposal for UN sanctions against Israel, and to seek third countries that might host the expellees for the year of their exile.
Rabin ruled out the possibility of any further Israeli gestures. "What we have agreed is a package deal," he said. "There will be no salami tactics ... this is not negotiable."
The spokesman for the deportees in southern Lebanon, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, rejected the Israeli proposal, saying that none of the 396 would return unless all of them did. That stance, Rabin said bluntly, "is their problem." Gaining US blessing
The Israeli offer falls well short of UN Security Council resolution 799, which calls for the immediate return of all the deportees, but US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he found the Israeli move "consistent" with the resolution, and that he was "quite optimistic" he had worked out a solution to the expulsions crisis.
Winning Mr. Christopher's public blessing was clearly one of Rabin's top priorities in making what he called "not an easy decision."
Explaining his compromise, Rabin said that "creating an understanding between us and the new US administration, to facilitate its ability to achieve its goals" was a major factor behind his move.
Indeed, he elevated the achievement of such an "understanding" with Washington to the status of a guiding principle of his government's policy, along with pursuing the peace process and fighting terrorism. Palestinians unmoved
That line of thinking has angered Palestinian leaders. "Israel always ignores its real partners," argued Ziyad abu Ziyad, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks. "Israel created this problem, the victims are Palestinians, but Israel says frankly it doesn't care what the Palestinians think. They care only about satisfying the Americans."
"This deal was struck behind our backs," complained Ms. Ashrawi in a phone interview. "This does not bode well for the peace process or for relations in the region."
The Palestinians, both the deported Islamists and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), have rejected the Israeli-US deal, and are insisting on the implementation of resolution 799.
"As long as there is no solution to the deportees' problem within the spirit of resolution 799, I do not see any chance of resuming the peace process," Mr. Abu Ziyad said.
Israeli officials and some foreign diplomats, however, hope that the Palestinians might soften their position, if the world community accepts the Israeli compromise as reasonable.
"I do not expect that the Palestinians' first position will necessarily be their real one," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Feb. 2.
"Nobody expected the Palestinians to welcome this [Israeli proposal] or to endorse it," says one diplomatic source. "The question is not whether everyone is happy with it, but whether it will enable us to get beyond this issue" of the deportees.
Rabin insisted Feb. 1 that his compromise proposal was in no way related to the UN resolution. "The US can say that this is the beginning of a long process of implementation of [resolution] 799," he said. "But by no means do I see it this way." Best hope for peace
Nevertheless, the Israeli prime minister left open the possibility that even those deportees not brought back as part of the first 100 might be returned soon.
Israeli military committees have begun to review the deportees' cases individually, offering the prospect that Israel could shorten some sentences.
This might help convince the Palestinians to return to the peace talks when the United States decides to reconvene them. But in the end, the best hope for a resumption of the negotiations is that neither the Americans, nor the Israelis, nor the PLO, want to let the Hamas deportees achieve their goal of derailing the process.