Palestinians hold out for deal on deportees: Charles Richards explores the difficulties facing the latest Mid-East peace move

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The Independent Online
WITH 20 April set as the date for the resumption of the Middle East peace talks in Washington, the question now is: will the Palestinians attend? It was the Russians, as co-sponsors with the Americans, who insisted that invitations be sent out in advance of a positive response from all sides.

The Israelis accepted with alacrity. The three Arab states neighbouring Israel - Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, which have had eight previous rounds of bilateral talks with Israel - have said they will reply after a meeting in Damascus in a fortnight's time. The Palestinians will also attend the Damascus meeting.

On Wednesday, the Palestinians refused even to accept delivery of the invitation. The gesture had an ominous precedent. The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, had also in Geneva refused to accept President Bush's letter when the Americans said they would go the last mile for peace to avert war in the Gulf.

The Palestinians' stated position is clear. They will not go back unless the Israelis make a commitment not to deport Palestinians in the future. It was the policy of deportation, rather than the specific issue of the 413 Palestinian Muslim militants exiled by Israel in December, which was at issue, the head of the Palestinian delegation, Faisal Husseini, said on Wednesday. 'The Palestinians are very eager to return to the negotiating table,' he added. But they would only return after a 'public statement of principle from the Israeli side' that deportations would end.

'Israel must make clear that there will be no deportations, and that implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 799 (calling on Israel to reverse the deportations) is a full one,' Mr Husseini said. He called for the return of 1,600 Palestinians banished from the Israeli-occupied territories since 1967.

The Israelis are confident the Palestinians will join the negotiations once more, without Israel making any such commitment on deportation policy. 'It is not feasible, not realistic to vow never to deport again,' the Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, said yesterday. 'It is not a serious, tangible demand, and therefore I don't think we need answer it.'

Mr Beilin said that the Palestinians should worry more about the substance of the negotiations than about their conditions for participating in them. The Israeli proposals, he said, offered them the best opportunity ever for running their own affairs.

No one underestimates the pressures that the Palestinians are under not to go back to the talks unless there is some Israeli concession on the deportation issue. There are pressures from an increasingly radicalised population in the occupied territories, and from the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, understood that he had to make some gesture to public opinion. Hence his instruction to the Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem not to receive the invitation from the Americans. But Mr Arafat also understands that strategically there are major risks in being absent from the next talks, the first of the Clinton administration.

The Palestinians now await some positive outcome on the deportation issue from the visit of Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to the US, starting today. The Arabs have 40 days and 40 nights to formulate their response. The Arab states have all stated that their national interests dictate they should return to the negotiating table. They also emphasise they seek not separate agreements with Israel, but a comprehensive settlement, including a solution to the Palestinian question. The question therefore remains: will Syria, Jordan and Lebanon allow the Palestinians to veto their return to the peace talks because of the deportation issue?