Christopher tour spawns vague promises

ONLY the United States can stage such a performance: Blackhawk helicopter gunships landing at dusk on the hills above east Beirut, hundreds of Lebanese troops prowling the bushes, US security men in crewcuts swarming through the Defence Ministry, a chauffeur-driven, bullet-proof Chevrolet Blazer with a belt-fed machine-gun mounted on the roof to freight Mr Clinton's man to see the President. A US Secretary of State was daring to visit Beirut for the first time in a decade.

But was it worth it? Warren Christopher was scarcely 80 minutes' drive from the 396 Palestinian deportees still languishing on a Lebanese mountainside 45 miles to the south but all he had to tell them was that the 'peace process' was too important to wait for their return home. Lebanon would 'benefit greatly' from a just and comprehensive peace. And yes, the United States supported the full implementation of the Taif Agreement under which the Syrian army must withdraw from Beirut.

Only he did not say that. With Reagan-like imprecision, Mr Christopher told an audience of bemused Lebanese journalists that Washington was 'urging the redeployment of the forces of Serbia into the Bekaa Valley', a remark that is likely to cause as much astonishment to Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade as it is to President Hafez al-Assad of Syria whose army has, to put it mildly, been a little slow in pulling out of Beirut for the Bekaa.

But the real sleight of hand had come earlier. Mr Christopher claimed to be the first Secretary of State to come to the Lebanese capital in 10 years, forgetting that James Baker dropped into Lebanon - to the town of Chtaura, about 15 miles away - only last year. Because of Mr Baker's absence during the election, Mr Christopher alleged, the peace process had been 'on hold' when he took over the State Department. But under Mr Christopher's pro-consulship, the United States had made it a matter of 'the first order' to talk to the Israelis about the deportees who would - and here was a promise to be remembered - 'all be released during the course of this calendar year'.

Thus, he made it clear, Israel would be complying with UN Security Council Resolution 799 and the Arab-Israeli peace talks could get under way again. Mr Christopher was pleased at 'the commitment of the Lebanese government to resume these negotiations as soon as possible'. The issue of the Palestinian deportees 'should not be an obstacle for the recommencement of the peace process'. And so it went on.

President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon, who discreetly departed after formally addressing Mr Christopher's press conference, seemed less enthusiastic, calling for a joint Arab response to Israel's reported promise to allow the Palestinians to return home this year. His Foreign Minister was visibly embarrassed when asked if Lebanon would resume its talks with Israel before the last deportees had left his country.

Then Mr Christopher went to Israel via Cyprus, leaving behind a vague promise that the US might re-examine its travel restrictions against Americans wishing to visit Lebanon. President Hrawi might be forgiven for wanting them to be kept in place.

(Photograph omitted)

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