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News Analysis: with Deportation Crisis Now Over, Focus is on Restarting Peace Talks

The U.N. Security Council’s decision not to take further action against Israel’s expulsion of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon is a diplomatic triumph not only for the new U.S. administration but for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as well.

But as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher headed for the Middle East this week, Israelis were still waiting to see if this tactical victory would translate into real gains –such as the resumption of the peace talks.

One well-placed observer here described the status of Israel’s peace diplomacy this week as “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

The outcome of the Security Council’s informal deliberations last Friday in New York vindicated Rabin’s insistence on standing firm on the compromise deal worked out with Christopher regarding the return of the deported Palestinian activists to the administered territories.

After Israel agreed to take back 101 of the 415 deported men immediately and allow the rest to return by year’s end, Rabin came under attack from both those who said the offer went too far and those who said it did not go far enough to satisfy the international community.

Rabin resolutely refused to waver from it, insisting confidently that the Americans would not waver either. He was proved right, as the Security Council decided in essence to drop the deportation issue and encourage all parties to the peace talks to resume negotiations.

The Security Council members realized that the Clinton administration had committed itself to the deal and would defend it in the council if need be.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also shared in the triumph. He personally led the diplomatic effort in New York that resulted in U.N. decision.

Now that the deportation crisis appears to be fading, the immediate future of the peace process will unfold in several stages.

The first stage is Christopher’s arrival in the Middle East for an intensive series of visits to key regional capitals.

Christopher was due to start his swing in Egypt and go on to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria, leaving the Israelis and Palestinians for last. He is expected in Jerusalem next Monday.

The next stage will come with Rabin’s planned visit to Washington in March, for a crucial personal dialogue with President Clinton. Rabin believes that working out the deportation compromise in conjunction with the United States has put his relationship with the new administration on a firm initial footing.

RAPID PROGRESS SOUGHT

The hoped-for final stage will be the resumption of the bilateral peace negotiations in Washington, tentatively scheduled for April. These talks have been effectively suspended since the December deportations.

Both Christopher and Clinton, in their meetings with Middle East leaders in the weeks ahead, will be focusing primarily on getting the talks restarted and on the substance of the negotiations.

One Israeli source involved in the talks observed this week that as the break between negotiating rounds gets longer, the expectations of progress become higher, once the talks do eventually get under way again.

Rabin’s success in persuading Washington to get him “off the hook” over the deportations was clearly predicated on the understanding that once the talks get back on course again, rapid progress toward concrete goals must be made.

That unspoken but important condition is also the position of the dovish flank of Rabin’s coalition: the Meretz bloc and the left wing of his own Labor Party.

This camp, having lost some of its own grass-roots support because it backed the deportations, is determined to recapture its waning popularity by showing skeptics the government is serious in its pursuit of a generous peace policy.

Rabin reiterated Tuesday that he is prepared” to make a territorial compromise on the Golan Heights.

And his leading negotiators were in Washington last week seeking to convince administration officials that Israeli proposals for Palestinian autonomy can be implemented fairly soon, ushering in a five-year transition period in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rabin and his aides at the Defense Ministry are also reportedly preparing a list of measures to ease the condition of life in the territories. This list is to be submitted to Christopher.

Israeli officials hope these ideas and gestures will help the Americans in their efforts to ensure that everyone, including the Palestinians, turns up in April to begin talking peace again.

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