Israel's deportation of about 400 Palestinians from the occupied territories to Lebanon poses perhaps the greatest threat so far to the renewed peace process. Even before yesterday's scheduled wind-up session of the eighth round of talks here, the US administration was pleading with the Israeli government not to carry out its decision.
But to no avail. At the very moment the four delegations were wrapping up their separate valedictory meetings with Mr Bush, the Israeli Supreme Court approved the deportations. 'If this resolution is carried through, it will deal a death-blow to the peace process,' said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Haidar Abdelshafi, as he left the White House.
Within an hour, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese had boycotted the closing session. A month before he leaves office, Mr Bush faces the collapse of everything he and his former secretary of state, James Baker, had worked so hard and resolutely to achieve.
For the talks, already bogged down, the deportations ordered by Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, have come as a final straw. According to the Palestinian spokeswoman at the talks, Hanan Ashrawi, the peace process stands 'on the brink of the abyss'. Israel's words, too, were no less harsh, as a senior negotiator here dismissed the episode as 'the temporary removal of a number of terrorists'.
Worst of all, for an anxious Washington, is the split in Palestinian ranks; yesterday's developments are a victory for the rejectionists, cutting the ground from under those in favour of continuing talks. 'Only Hamas has won,' said one analyst.
What happens next is uncertain. To each group of White House visitors yesterday, Mr Bush insisted the talks must go on, despite the deportations and the violence which provoked them. 'Peace between Israel and its neighbours has never been more achievable,' said a statement from his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater. Just conceivably the breakdown is not terminal. The changing of the guard at the White House draws a line under the 13 months since the initial peace conference in Madrid; under the incoming president, Bill Clinton, Arabs and Israelis may feel they can decently make a new start, with honour saved. All have an interest in seeing that the peace process continues, if only because no one wishes to be held responsible for its final collapse. A vital factor will be the shape of the future Democratic administration, which could offer inducements to both sides.
Throughout his campaign, Mr Clinton never missed an opportunity to proclaim his commitment to Israel; but moderate Arabs at least may be heartened if, as expected, Warren Christopher is chosen to head the State Department. As deputy secretary of state in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the lawyer-diplomat earned a reputation as a powerful human rights advocate, and a skilful, patient negotiator whom Mr Carter would later describe as the 'best public servant I ever knew'. Mrs Ashrawi conceded yesterday that Mr Christopher enjoyed the confidence of both sides.Reuse content