Israel and PLO bank on Clinton

FOR several weeks the players in the Middle East peace process have been awaiting the arrival of Bill Clinton, the new US President, like an orchestra waiting impatiently for their conductor to walk on to the stage.

Without the up beat from Mr Clinton, the talks, which halted before Christmas with Israel's mass expulsion of more than 400 Palestinians, cannot start again. Signs of where Mr Clinton's Middle East priorities lie will come early.

The suspected supporters of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, who were expelled last month, are still freezing in a south Lebanon no man's land, and the failure to resolve their plight has led Palestinian leaders to suspend negotiations.

A United Nations envoy, Chinmaya Gharekhan, visiting Israel, warned yesterday that time is running out for Israel to allow the deportees back, hinting that the United Nations, which has passed a resolution calling for their return, may consider sanctions. Arab leaders have accused America of double standards in relation to Israel. Once again, they say, the US has enforced UN resolutions against an Arab country - Iraq - while letting Israel off the hook.

As the Israeli Supreme Court last night adjourned to consider its decision on the legality of the explusions, Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, was seeking an early meeting with Mr Clinton to ensure his backing in the UN Security Council.

In the space of a month the deportations have changed the balance of Palestinian politics, introducing new complications. Palestinian leaders, and some liberal Israelis, had hoped that a Clinton administration might persuade Israel to open direct talks with the PLO, perhaps taking the lead itself, by renewing US-PLO dialogue. Israel's move on Tuesday to lift the ban on contacts between individual Israeli citizens and PLO officials might, according to some commentators, have foreshadowed a thawing in Israeli government policy towards the PLO. However, one effect of the deportations has been to push the PLO into considering admitting Hamas into its ranks as a show of Palestinian unity. Such a development, which Palestinian leaders say is likely, would only make it harder for Israel to talk directly to the PLO.

The conventional wisdom suggests that Israel should have high hopes of Mr Clinton. US Democrats, with the support of the vast majority of the US Jewish lobby, are traditionally 'friends of Israel' and Israeli officials have been predicting that the periodic bitterness which characterised the Bush era of US-Israel policy will be fast forgotten.

Nevertheless, Israel also fears that Mr Clinton will be so concerned with US domestic issues that he will be unable and unwilling to attend to the peace process with the painstaking care displayed by Mr Bush and the former US secretary of state, James Baker. Furthermore, Israel accepts that the end of the Cold War means that its importance as a US Middle East ally has diminished.

Mr Rabin prides himself on his personal relationship with Washington, forged when he was ambassador there in the late 1960s. But the Labour Prime Minister may find the Washington he knew has disappeared with the new couple in the White House. As one Israeli commentator put it this week, 70-year-old Yitzhak Rabin will have to take some quick lessons in 'rock 'n' roll diplomacy'.

(Photograph omitted)