AS Secretary of State Warren Christopher tours the region trying to restart the Middle East peace talks, the Palestinians find themselves increasingly divided on whether to return to the negotiating table.
At issue is Israel's deportation of 415 Palestinians in December from the occupied territories for allegedly belonging to the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad.
The United Nations Security Council's failure to ensure Israel's compliance with Resolution 799, which calls for the safe and immediate return of all the deportees, has fueled a heated debate within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its peace delegation on whether to accept a compromise on the deportation issue, which would pave the way for their return to the next round of negotiations with Israel, according to Palestinian sources.
"For the first time, there is the serious threat of a divided delegation endangering the makeup of the negotiating and advisory teams formulated for the Madrid conference in October 1991," says Tayseer Arouri, adviser to the Palestinian delegation.
But Syria, following a meeting with Mr. Christopher, said Sunday that it would return to the negotiating table regardless of the outcome of the deportation issue. Lebanon also has agreed to take this position, and a senior Jordanian official says his country may follow suit. Watching the PLO
Chief Palestinian negotiator Haidar Abdel-Shafi has threatened to withdraw from the delegation if the PLO decides to continue talking peace without the repatriation of the Palestinians.
According to Mr. Arouri, Mr. Abdel-Shafi has gained support from the majority of his team. Other Palestinian insiders say Abdel-Shafi's support comes mostly from mainstream Palestinian groups, including some in Fatah (the PLO faction led by Chairman Yasser Arafat), and from a large portion of the Palestinian population inside the occupied territories.
These sources add that the delegation members who would accept a compromise on the deportation issue before attending the next round of talks include delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, head of the advisory team Faisal al-Husseini, and negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Officially, the PLO says it intends to boycott the next round of bilateral talks, which may open in April.
"The PLO leadership position is clear: no talks without the implementation of 799," PLO Executive Committee member Suleiman Najjab told the Monitor.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, another Executive Committee member, also said that the Palestinian delegation would boycott the next round "even if the rest of the Arabs decided to attend."
At the same time, however, some in the PLO are trying to find a "face-saving" formula to the deportation issue that would enable a return to the negotiating table.
A number of compromise proposals have been floated in the last two weeks along the lines of a US-brokered Israeli proposal, but with conditions more acceptable to the Palestinians.
Israel, prompted by the United States, has offered to return 101 of the 400 remaining deportees immediately, with the rest to follow by the end of the year. The Palestinians have rejected this plan.
In another recent proposal, Egypt proposed Sunday that Israel return the deportees in three phases - one third this month, one third in April, and the rest in June. Palestinians supporting a compromise would accept such a formula to return to the negotiations.
But Abdel-Shafi rejected this plan yesterday. Several members of the delegation in Amman reportedly supported this view.
The deportees' weekend statements that they would accept a timetable for their repatriation if Israel made an internationally guaranteed pledge to stop further deportations of Palestinians is acceptable to the Abdel-Shafi camp opposing a compromise. Banning deportations
The demand for an Israeli pledge to outlaw deportations was made last week by the deportees, but it has been a delegation demand since last month and one the Israelis are considered unlikely to accept.
"If the expellees themselves accept a compromise to their crisis, then we too will accept it as a condition to return to the negotiations," Arouri says. "But it is very important that Israel stops its deportation policy once and for all."
The PLO leadership - under local and Arab pressure to participate in the next round of talks - risks losing credibility among the people if it decides to participate in the next round of talks while the deportees remain stranded between Lebanese and Israeli Army lines, and at a time when violence is escalating between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The whole delegation would simply not attend the talks if the PLO decides to participates with just the Israeli offer," says Arouri, himself a deportee from the West Bank who is in close contact with both the PLO and the delegation in the occupied territories.
An opinion poll published Sunday in the occupied territories showed that four out of five Palestinians think that their leaders should boycott the peace talks until Israel repatriates the 400 deportees.