Americans tempt the Palestinians: US dangles Rabin concession as bait for peace talks

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THE PALESTINIAN peace negotiators have received assurances from the United States that if they announce an end to the peace talks boycott, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, will guarantee not to carry out further deportations.

This is the latest quid pro quo brokered by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, which the US hopes will persuade the Palestinians and their Arab partners, meeting in Damascus tomorrow and Monday, to accept invitations to a new round of talks in Washington on 20 April. The boycott began in December when Israel deported more than 400 Palestinians alleged to be Islamic extremists.

The US is prepared to underpin its assurances to the Palestinians with a promise to uphold the ground rules of the peace talks: that a solution must be based on UN Resolution 242, which established the principle of land for peace.

The US is ready to strengthen its public stance on one of the most contentious issues: the status of Jerusalem. Diplomatic sources say the State Department is ready to restate its position, blurred in recent months, that Arab east Jersualem, annexed by Israel since 1967, is occupied territory, and as much a part of the negotiations as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With heavy Jewish settlement continuing in and around Jerusalem, US analysts believe the Palestinian cause would be better served by campaigning for an end to settlement rather than focusing on the deportations.

On the face of it, such a deal should satisfy Palestinian terms for a return to the talks, which centre on a six-point list of which the main demand is that Mr Rabin repudiate deportation. However, the proposed formula holds many risks for the Palestinian side.

They are being asked to make their move first, without seeing Mr Rabin's proposals. Their agenda calls for 'a binding commitment that Israel will not resort to deportation in the future'. So far Mr Rabin has refused to say more than that the deportations were 'unprecedented'. The US is understood to have extracted from Mr Rabin a commitment only that he will say something 'less ambiguous' than he has so far.

The deal demands therefore that the Palestinians trust the Americans to ensure Mr Rabin keeps his side of the deal. Since the new administration took over in Washington, trust between the Palestinians and the US has faltered. The US tried to make separate deals with Israel to try to solve the deportee crisis, which angered the Palestinians before floundering.

Talks between Mr Christopher and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem last month were dogged by misunderstanding, according to sources on both sides. The Palestinians felt the US tried to bounce them into promising to return to the talks by holding out the prospect of a new Rabin statement.

The Palestinians have watched in dismay in recent weeks as the US proclaimed its unquestioning support for Israel, while Mr Rabin reiterated that he would not compromise over the deportees.

If the Palestinians agree to rejoin the talks, and they do not receive the assurance they seek, their credibility in the occupied territories will be so damaged that they will become sitting ducks for the rejectionists.

Nevertheless, the US may have handed enough guide- ropes to the Palestinians to tempt them to take a leap into the dark. Mr Christopher told them he wants to be a 'full partner' and the Palestinians acknowledge that, in private, the US have taken encouraging positions on the substance of the talks.

In the Damascus meeting, the Syrian hosts are expected to urge a return to the negotiating table, as are the Jordanians. With worsening conflict in the occupied territories creating a new sense of urgency, all parties to the talks concede that if the peace process breaks down, the killings will escalate.