Israel buys time with 'concession' on Palestinians

'IT SERVES to let us identify needs. It doesn't serve to cover them. It is not a relief action,' said Reto Meister, the senior Red Cross delegate in Israel, putting a brave face yesterday on Israel's first 'concession' in the deportations row.

After refusing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all access for two weeks, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, yesterday agreed to give right of passage to two ICRC delegates, but only on a 'one-off basis' and only on condition that they simply checked on the 413 deportees stranded in south Lebanon and returned the same day.

For Mr Meister, after days of brittle negotiations with Mr Rabin, it was an important breakthrough. Israeli officials hope the deal may prove to be a building block in a diplomatic compromise.

With the threat - however distant - of United Nations sanctions hanging over it, Israel has launched a new public relations exercise to soften world criticism and stave off a significant increase in domestic criticism, which has started in recent days with influential Israeli newspapers asking what the benefit of the deportation has been. Reports are also circulating of growing criticism of the decision within the Foreign Ministry and the army.

The PR exercise is intended to present a picture of successful activity to counter Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and to demonstrate what a threat the movement poses.

On Wednesday, amid great fanfare, the Defence Ministry held a press conference to advertise the arrest of armed Islamic activists. Then yesterday the Israeli press reported that senior elements in the Israeli army were considering closing down Hamas-run schools, universities and welfare institutions throughout the Israeli-occupied territories. The idea, said the reports, was to 'liquidate' the infrastructure of Hamas.

At the same time rumours are rife in Jerusalem of an imminent deal with Syria over the Golan Heights. Although Mr Rabin has denied the reports, they appear to have come from official sources and help focus attention on Israel's peace efforts, rather than its illegal deportations.

Whatever compromise is arrived at, it has to achieve the apparently impossible: namely, the threat of UN sanctions must be lifted and the boycott of the peace talks by Palestinians ended - but without forcing Mr Rabin to bring back the deportees.

The short-term scenario painted by Western diplomats goes as follows: for the next few days an illusion of activity will be created by the ICRC visit and by the visit to Jerusalem of a second UN envoy, Chinmaya Gharekhan. Although Mr Gharekhan is likely to leave with a flea in his ear, his visit will delay imminent action by the Security Council until after the crucial hearing of the Israeli Supreme Court on 17 January, when the judges will make their final decision on the legality of the deportations.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to rule the deportations illegal - after its refusal to halt them in the first place - without a nod from Mr Rabin himself. Mr Rabin will only give such a nod if he believes that a serious threat exists of a UN sanctions resolution. He might then decide that a ruling from the Supreme Court would be the lesser of two evils.

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