UNITED States Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in Israel tonight to present an Egyptian plan, apparently backed by both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the radical Islamic movement Hamas, to resolve the deportation crisis that has stalled Middle East peace negotiations.
The proposal calls for Israel to declare that it will never again deport Palestinians from the occupied territories. In return, the Palestinians will return to the peace talks. There are no signs yet, however, that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is ready to make such a pledge.
In Cairo Feb. 19, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Mr. Christopher that the peace talks could be restarted if Israel would speed up the return of the 400 Hamas deportees stranded in a makeshift camp in South Lebanon and agree not to use deportations in the future.
Israel has offered to return 101 of the deportees immediately, and to bring back the rest before the end of the year. It deported 415 Palestinians Dec. 17, charging they belonged to Hamas or other radical Islamic groups, but released 15 last month.
When he announced this US-brokered offer three weeks ago, Mr. Rabin insisted that he would make no further concessions.
Mr. Mubarak's plan appears to have the blessing of the PLO. "What we need is Israel's magic statement that they won't resort to deportations in the future," says Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian negotiating delegation. "If Israel would come up with such a sentence, we could find a way out" of the deportations crisis. The Palestinians have refused to re-enter peace talks with Israel until the crisis is over.
Unexpectedly, Hamas also agreed to the proposal yesterday, backing off a previous refusal to accept any deportee's return unless all 400 are allowed back.
"We will accept a timetable for our return only if Israel declares, with international guarantees, that it will not deport any Palestinians anymore," a spokesman for the deportees, Azis Zweik, told the Associated Press.
The demand that Israel should make such a declaration will be strengthened by Washington's traditional stance that deportations are illegal under international law and should not be used.
But when he meets Christopher tomorrow, Rabin may be loath to deprive himself of a procedure that he has defended as one of the most powerful weapons in Israel's arsenal in its battle against Palestinian violence.
Asked last week whether the government might renounce deportations in a gesture to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin would say only that "this idea of banishment is not part and parcel of the ideology ... of the new government, it was not done as part of an ongoing policy. I hope that in the future there will not be a need to do something like this again."
While visiting Jordan Saturday, Christopher said he also hoped Israel would use its system of review to bring back "significant numbers" of the deportees earlier than planned, but the prospect of this is slim, according to Israeli officials. The appeals boards, ordered by the Supreme Court last month, were never convened, since the deportees refused to submit appeals on the grounds that this would legitimate the concept of deportation.
Nor has a special review committee, made up of senior Army and secret service officers, reversed any of the deportations since the 15 were returned.
Israeli officials have been suggesting privately in recent days that the government might make a gesture, such as allowing back some of the estimated 1,600 Palestinians deported since 1967, to help restart the peace process.
Rabin is not likely to make any further moves during Christopher's visit, however, Transport Minister Micha Harish suggested yesterday. Instead, he will wait until he has seen President Clinton at a meeting scheduled for March 15 in Washington.