Gloom shrouds Mid-East peace: The new US Secretary of State visits Jerusalem today. He will find an ominous polarising in Israeli and Palestinian attitudes, reports Sarah Helm

THE US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, will arrive in Jerusalem today to find deeper pessimism about the prospect of Middle East peace than at any time since the Madrid conference which launched the latest peace talks in 1991.

Choosing the Middle East for his first foreign tour as Secretary of State, Mr Christopher might have hoped to arrive in Jerusalem to find the peace process, nurtured by his predecessor, James Baker, beginning to bear fruit for a Clinton administration. Such hopes, however, were shattered in December when Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, deported more than 400 Palestinians suspected of Islamic militancy, provoking an Arab boycott of the talks.

Mr Christopher's first task will be to suggest to Mr Rabin ways to return more deportees, in addition to his first offer to bring back 101 of them, which the Arab side says is not enough. And he will test whether the Palestinians can show any flexibility on the matter to get the talks re-started.

However, agreeing terms for the return of the deportees does not mean the damage done will be over. Two months after the event, it is clear that far from helping the peace process, as Mr Rabin claimed it would, the deportations have radically changed the dynamics of the Palestinian conflict, polarising attitudes on both sides.

Israeli and Palestinian commentators are talking of a new and dangerous phase. Some suggest the Madrid formula, the framework for the talks, should be torn up and ground-rules re-negotiated. Others, who previously argued there was no other choice but to negotiate, are contemplating failure for the first time, adjusting to the idea of living with escalation of the conflict, and even the possibility of a unilateral imposition by Israel of Palestinian autonomy.

Although showing solidarity with the Palestinians, other Arab countries have clearly been less directly affected, and have been telling Mr Christopher they are keen to return to the talks, raising speculation in Israel that a deal with Syria may be achievable if the Palestinian issue becomes bogged down. However, any suggestion that deals can be done on other fronts without a solution to the Palestinian question seems premature. It remains in the interests of the Arabs and Israelis to achieve a comprehensive peace if possible.

The immediate cause for pessimism on the Palestinian front is the harm the deportations have done to the standing of the peace delegation among their own people in the Israeli occupied territories. The delegation, directed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunis, has only ever had reluctant grassroots support for its decision to negotiate, on terms rejected by many Palestinian hardliners as a sell-out. After one year of talks with no progress, accompanied by increasingly repressive Israeli measures, such as the deportations, the rejectionist mood has only hardened.

As it has so often before, Israel is pressurising the Palestinians to attend the talks, saying they are missing another opportunity for peace. But such taunts cannot persuade a man such as Haidar Abdel-Shafi, chairman of the team, to return. His constituency is in Gaza where a growing majority spurn the negotiations and support the Islamic group, Hamas.

The delegation and their PLO masters have a strong interest in restarting the negotiations and achieving progress to strengthen themselves against the Hamas rejectionists. But they say they cannot allow the principle of deportation to stand; nor can they allow the UN resolution condemning the act to be undermined, thereby laying the ground for undermining other UN resolutions which are their only source of power.

'Without this international legitimacy we will go back to historical rights, then we are really back to square one,' said Ghassan Khatib, a delegation member.

Early gains are the only way the delegation believe its credibility with the people can be re-established. This, they say, places the ball in Mr Rabin's court.

Mr Rabin also desperately wants the talks to resume. Palestinian autonomy was his main election platform and he knows the Likud party is regrouping and preparing to put up a more effective opposition if he falters. But Mr Rabin is also constrained by his constituency and by his own image as Israel's symbol of security which he continually has to shore up. Harsher responses by him are being predicted.