Arab Deportees Remain an Obstacle to Talks, Christopher Tells Israel

The Arab states all want to resume the suspended Middle East peace talks, but the fate of the Palestinians deported to Lebanon is still a major obstacle, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Israeli leaders here Tuesday.

As both Israelis and Palestinians staged demonstrations, Christopher met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, as well as with a Palestinian delegation led by Faisal Husseini, who is a senior adviser to the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel.

Israeli officials were surprised and somewhat disconcerted to learn from Christopher that Egypt still sees the deportee issue as unresolved and an obstacle to resuming the peace process, despite the compromise deal worked out by Christopher and Rabin earlier this month.

Israel Television reported that Christopher urged Rabin to agree in practice, if not formally, to a more accelerated return of the deportees than first proposed.

At the same time, Christopher reportedly took a firm stand in his meeting with Palestinians, urging them to join in the resumption of the talks.

Reports from Arab sources spoke of a proposed “new compromise” that the secretary was bearing with him.

According to these reports, which significantly were not denied in the American camp, Israel would come under pressure to bring back two-thirds of the deportees before the talks are slated to resume and the final third before the end of the summer.

Under the deal worked out with Washington earlier this month, Israel agreed to accept back 101 of the 415 Palestinian activists deported to Lebanon in December. The rest would be returned by the end of the year.

TALKS COULD RESUME NEXT MONTH

News reports said Christopher believes there is fair chance of resuming the talks as early as next month, rather than the April date that had been bandied about.

But the deportation crisis still looms. Husseini is said to have told Christopher of the near-unanimity of Palestinian opinion in the territories that resumption of the peace talks be conditioned on the prior return of all the deportees.

Indeed, Palestinians interviewed at random by both Israeli and foreign journalists here seemed united in their conviction that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian negotiators from the territories must not agree to return to the talks under any other condition.

“If they agree, then they will no longer be the representatives of the Palestinian people,” said one middle-aged Palestinian in a low-key interview with Israeli army radio.

But like the PLO and the Palestinian negotiators, Rabin too is under pressure from his own constituency.

When Rabin agreed to the compromise on the deportees, he vowed he would make no further concessions. And on Tuesday, Israeli activists on the political right made clear the prime minister that they would mount a vigorous campaign opposing concessions on this issue and others, such as withdrawing from the Golan Heights.

As Rabin and Christopher dined together Tuesday night, thousands of demonstrators protesting negotiations over the Golan Heights wound through the streets of Jerusalem bearing torches and placards.

While the marchers themselves largely comprised yeshiva students and Golan settlers, opinion polls consistently show that most Israelis are still uncomfortable with the idea of giving back the entire Golan, even in the context of international supervision or other security arrangements.

Yet those on all sides of the Middle East conflict are keenly aware that a moment of decision is at hand.

That point was driven home when Syria said last weekend that it is ready to resume the peace talks because they are “more important” than the crisis over the Palestinian deportees.

Christopher reportedly delivered a message to Rabin from Syrian President Hafez Assad, which said Damascus is ready to offer peace on Israel’s terms, including full normalization and complete diplomatic relations. But it wants in return that Israeli renounce its sovereignty over all of the Golan Heights.

SNOW FROM THE GOLAN

Such an offer puts Israel in a difficult position. On the one hand, it holds out the prospect of “real peace” with one of Israel’s most implacable foes.

On the other hand, even Labor and Social Affairs Minister Ora Namir, a member of the Labor Party’s dovish wing, declared Tuesday that the government is determined not to cede all of the Golan.

Earlier in the day, members of Moshav Neveh Ativ in the northern Golan transported 15 tons of snow from Mount Hermon to the park across from the Prime Minister’s Office and built an igloo.

“The igloo represents our feelings regarding our home in the Golan,” explained Jeanine Nave, a moshav resident. “You see how cold this snow is? We would like to freeze any peace negotiations that call for a return of the Golan to Syria.”

A block away, another group of protesters had erected a huge placard of a smiling Yasir Arafat holding an American flag in one hand and a sign with the words “Welcome Warren” in the other. A collection of skulls and knives hung from his waist.

The demonstrators, all members of the group Victims of Arab Terror, set up a tent several weeks ago to protest the planned return of the Palestinian deportees.

Pointing to the likeness of Arafat, spokesman Meir Indor said: “We brought this today to protest Warren Christopher’s attempts to pressure our government to return more of the deportees.”

In the morning, the families of the Palestinian deportees also sought the secretary of state’s attention by staging a rally.

Carrying placards and chanting “Bring back our sons,” the families walked to the Prime Minister’s Office. Along the way, a scuffle broke out between the Palestinian protesters and members of the Golan moshav, but there were no serious injuries.

While Palestinians in the territories are insisting on an unconditional return of the deportees, the deportees themselves said this week they would be willing to accept a phased return, if Israel promises to end its policy of deportations.

That could only have come as relief to the Palestinian leadership, which is anxious not to miss out on the peace talks.

The Palestinian leaders are concerned they may be left behind if Rabin and Assad start to talk and make the bold decisions required to proceed toward peace.

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