News Analysis: Clinton to Meet Rabin, but Relations May Be Strained by Deportation Crisis

As Israel prepares to reaffirm its special relationship to America with a new administration in Washington, the ongoing crisis over Palestinians deported from the administered territories threatens to start relations off on a bad footing.

Nevertheless, President Clinton has tentatively agreed to meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in March, according to Israeli officials. Rabin will be the first Middle East leader to see the new American president, aides to Rabin said.

The meeting apparently was discussed in a telephone conversation between the two leaders last Saturday.

Rabin also spoke with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is expected to visit Israel next month as part of a Middle East tour aimed at getting the peace process back on track.

But while these efforts augur well for revitalizing the stalled negotiations, Israel has yet to rid itself of the international crisis created when it deported 415 Moslem fundamentalists from the territories to southern Lebanon last month.

Israel faces continuing condemnation, and possibly sanctions, over the crisis from a U.N. Security Council grown more active and powerful.

COULD INTERRUPT PEACE TALKS

More detrimental, from the Israeli government’s perspective, is the prospect that the Middle East peace talks, especially the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, will not resume in Washington until an acceptable solution to the deportation crisis is found.

Even if the Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians can be persuaded to proceed with the next round of peace talks without a resolution of the crisis, the Palestinian negotiators from the territories have made it clear they cannot and will not come.

To resume the talks without a resolution of the crisis, these leaders explain, would make them appear as traitors in the eyes of their people. They note that hundreds of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are living in a state of limbo, with fathers or brothers languishing on a snowy stretch of land between Israeli and Lebanese army lines.

These stark political facts tend to overshadow the satisfaction felt in Jerusalem that old and firm friends of Israel have been designated for important posts in Clinton’s administration.

Israelis were happy to hear that Samuel Lewis, a beloved former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was being named to head up the State Department’s policy planning staff Reassuring reports also said that Clinton would name Martin Indyk, head of a pro-Israel Washington think tank, to the National Security Council.

Other published reports indicated that Richard Schifter, active in the Jewish community, was being considered to become the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

These familiar faces have reassured Israeli leaders, but they could by no means defuse growing concern that the deportation crisis is jeopar- dizing the peace process and threatening to roll back Israel’s successes during the past two years in breaking out of its international isolation.

While the Bush administration reportedly promised Israel it would veto a sanctions resolution in the Security Council, Israel does not know what to expect from Clinton’s team.

Would the new U.S. administration, anxious to maintain and expand international action via the United Nations, risk a fight with the other 14 Security Council members right at the very start of its term?

Some observers both inside and outside Israel hope Israel’s High Court of Justice, which has been weighing the legality of the deportations, will help resolve the crisis by ordering the action reversed.

But whichever way the court rules, Rabin’s government will face negative consequences.

If the seven justices rule to overturn the deportations, the fundamentalist and rejectionist Islamic group Hamas will celebrate a field day.

The losers will be the more moderate Palestinian leadership linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and, in the long run, the Israeli government as well, which might find itself forced to deal with the more extremist demands of the Islamic groups. This would hamper Rabin’s stated goal of moving toward an autonomy agreement for the territories within months.

However, if the court ruled in favor of the government, the diplomatic logjam would remain.

TALKS MAY NOT RESUME TILL APRIL

The root of the problem, in the view of one Israeli negotiator, lies in the fact that the Middle East peace talks have no fixed schedule and are therefore vulnerable to the volatile political situation of the day.

Each session in Washington adjourns before a date for the next session has been firmly scheduled. What follows are elaborate diplomatic maneuvers involving the various parties, the United States and other mediating countries.

Now, under the shadow of the deportation crisis, Washington is naturally reluctant to issue invitations, fearing that the Palestinians, and probably other Arab parties, would reject them.

The most optimistic prognosis, therefore, is that the talks will get under way again in April, after the Moslem holy month of Ramadan is over. This is assuming, of course, that the deportation crisis is defused by then.

Observers can only point out, in frustration, that the crisis has the power to stop the peace talks dead in their tracks at the very moment when Rabin, Syrian President Hafez Assad and apparently Yasir Arafat, too, are all looking to the new administration in Washington to inject new momentum into the peace process.

Left-leaning ministers in the Rabin government, who surprised their constituencies by supporting the deportations in December, reasoned at the time that a blow against Hamas would enable the cautious and conservative Rabin to step out boldly and generously toward the PLO, once the Clinton team had settled into office.

They anticipated, moreover, that repealing the Israeli law banning contact with PLO officials would facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.

But they apparently miscalculated, as did Rabin, the ability of the deportees’ plight to embarrass more pragmatic Palestinian forces and derail plans for an Israeli-Palestinian compromise.

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