UNITED States Secretary of State Warren Christopher left Jerusalem yesterday, after two days of diplomatic carpentry aimed at fashioning a ladder down which the Palestinians might climb from their refusal to rejoin the Middle East peace talks.
The ladder's strength and stability have still to be tested: Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories and at Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunis were huddling yesterday inspecting Mr. Christopher's handiwork.
But as they returned home after the secretary of state's first trip to the Middle East, US officials said they were hopeful that a successful deal to restart the peace negotiations was in the works.
No date for a resumption has been set. But after visiting Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, Christopher said he had "a very real sense that all the parties want the negotiations ... to resume and to succeed at an early date." He added, however, that "there still are obstacles ... that will have to be overcome," primarily the fate of the 396 Palestinians remaining in southern Lebanon after being deported by Israel in December.
In three rounds of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Christopher sought to convince him to make the sort of gestures that would tempt the Palestinians back to the talks, according to senior US officials.
Among the US proposals, the officials say, are an assurance by Israel that it would not resort to deportations in the future, improvements in the human rights situation in the occupied territories, and quick administrative ways of bringing back the deportees.
The exact nature of such measures remains unclear, and Mr. Rabin's repeated insistence that December's mass deportation was "an exception" to normal Israeli policy falls well short of Palestinian demands that he formally renounce deportation as a weapon.
The US suggestions met with a guardedly positive response from the Palestinians. "Several ideas were raised that we decided were worth talking about," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.
Christopher was quick to stress, however, that he was "not in the business of pressuring the Israelis to do anything," and that instead, he was "really talking to the Palestinians about their stake in this endeavor." The Palestinians say they need no reminding that they stand to gain the most from a successful peace process.
"We are eager to go back, we have the will to go back, but we do not have the ability until the deportations issue is resolved," because of popular feeling among Palestinians, one source close to the Palestinian delegation said this week.
A poll of more than 1,000 Palestinians, released as Christopher arrived in Israel, found that 84 percent opposed resuming the peace talks until the deportees have been returned, but 60 percent support the negotiations in principle.
Returning to the talks regardless of the deportees' fate, said Faisal al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian negotiating team, would destroy the delegation's credibility.
"As a negotiator I need two things, credibility and flexibility," he explained. "When I started with [former US Secretary of State James] Baker, I was a billionaire in credibility. Since then I have been paying from my credibility and from my flexibility, and I am not sure that if I write another check it will be honored." To regain his credibility, Mr. Husseini needs "someone to come with a ladder to help us down" from the tree he was forced to climb by the deportations, a senior Palestinian official sa ys.
Christopher did promise the Palestinians that if they rejoin the negotiations, Washington "will act to facilitate the talks in a more active way than we have in the past," as Palestinians have demanded.
But US officials say he flatly turned down demands that Washington resume its dialogue with the PLO, broken off in 1990, and that Palestinians from East Jerusalem or from outside the occupied territories should be allowed to join the talks.
Though the Palestinians were hoping for a change in these policies with the new US administration, they have not conditioned their participation in the talks on such changes. They do, however, need a face-saving formula on the deportees.
The PLO is expected to seek ways of strengthening Israeli and US assurances on deportations and human rights as far as possible in the coming weeks. Christopher's proposals "are evolving ideas that should be worked on," Ms. Ashrawi said.