Uneasy Compromise on Deportees

ISRAEL'S offer to return 100 of the 400 deported Palestinians in exchange for a United States agreement to block United Nations efforts at sanctions is the first dance the Clinton administration has danced with Israel.

Certainly the White House wants to get off on the right foot with its longtime Middle East partners. At the same time, for reasons of principle and image, Mr. Clinton cannot be expected to make such compromising deals on any regular basis - and the Rabin government should understand that.

As regards principle: No US administration has ever supported the Israeli practice of deportation. Some 100 men will return. But that leaves 300. The deportees are described as Hamas terrorists, though none has had due process, and dozens of them, it appears, are not as guilty as even the Israelis might have first thought. The US probably went along with Mr. Rabin this time to avoid a crisis early in the relationship. But it can't arbitrarily break its commitment to the Geneva conventions.

As regards image: The US has overall relations in the Middle East to consider. For strategic and moral reasons, it must improve relations with Arabs. After what amounts to US strong-arming the Security Council on behalf of Israel, and with what seems a double standard toward Muslims in Iraq and Bosnia, the US image in the Arab world is tarnished. It must be improved. Working behind the scenes for direct Israeli-PLO negotiations might help. So might an answer for the other 300 detainees.

Inquiries on the US Palestinians recently detained in the occupied territories and charged with funding Hamas also should be pursued.

The new US administration must tread somewhat independently in the Middle East. Israel unilaterally threw 400 Palestinians out overnight and may have permanently wrecked the peace talks. Not surprisingly, the act enraged all sides; the ensuing storm has not yet blown over. Facing sanctions, the Israelis essentially asked the new administration to excuse their act. It did so - at the cost of implicitly supporting or legitimizing a practice it abhors and of harming its own status in the process.

Washington cannot be a Middle East peacemaker if it is regularly forced into this position.

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