Palestinians reject Israel climbdown

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The Independent Online
THE Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinians exiled to South Lebanon yesterday rejected Israel's agreement to accept some of them back, leaving the fate of the 400 still in the balance and the diplomatic fall-out still highly uncertain.

As a result there can be no certainty that the compromise will bring Palestinian leaders back to the peace talks, which they are still determined to boycott until all deportees are returned. Yesterday Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PLO executive committee member, said: 'The PLO rejects such a deal and nobody has the right to deal on matters related to the fate of Palestinian citizens behind the back of the Security Council.'

The deportees' spokesman in the south Lebanon no man's land, Abdel Aziz al- Rantisi, described the deal as an 'American-Israeli conspiracy'. He added: 'If 100 return we would admit the legality of the expulsion of the rest.'

On Monday Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced he was prepared to allow 100 deportees to return and he offered to cut the period of banishment of others.

Given the scale of the climbdown, Mr Rabin's credibility at home appeared to have survived well, though somewhat bruised. While the right accused him of caving in to US pressure and handing victory to Hamas, public opinion generally was wearying of the affair and appeared to accept that a compromise had become inevitable.

When he announced his 'package deal' the Prime Minister said he had been guided by three objectives: to continue the peace talks; to win the fight against 'terrorism'; and to further US-Israeli understanding. As things stood yesterday Mr Rabin could only be sure of having achieved the third aim. The deal was a US-Israeli bargain whereby the US agreed to prevent United Nations sanctions.

That the new US administration was so ready to abandon its commitment to UN resolution 799, calling for the 'safe and immediate' return of all the deportees, in order to aid Israel, is an early indication that the Clinton administration is likely to deal softly with Israel in the future.

However, there are serious doubts in Washington that the Clinton administration's efforts to defuse the crisis will be successful.

'This is what the US thinks is achievable at the moment. They won't go any further,' said a diplomat yesterday. 'The Palestinians think they've got the Israelis over a barrel so there is no need for them to compromise. They know the US is worried that its disagreement with its allies over enforcing the UN resolution on the return of the deportees will disrupt its coalition against Iraq.'

There was no sign yesterday of the US producing any further carrot to the Palestinians to accept the offer by the Israelis. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, said on Monday that the progressive return of the deportees made it unnecessary for the resolution imposing sanctions to come before the UN Security Council 'and thus we don't think it necessary to address the matter of a veto at this time'.

If the US does veto a UN resolution imposing sanctions on Israel for defying resolution 799 it will make it much more difficult for the US to act through the UN in the Gulf and Bosnia. It was the political need to show even-handedness in dealing with Israel and Iraq that first prompted President Bush to start the Middle East peace talks in 1991.

'The United States believes it is time to look ahead and reinvigorate and restart the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations,' Mr Christopher said. 'The peace negotiations offer the only practical avenue to resolve the problems of the Middle East.' But it was probable yesterday that the talks would not start before the onset of Ramadan on 23 February, after which date there will be an enforced delay of a month.

The threat of United Nations sanctions did recede yesterday and European leaders said the deal was a 'welcome step' sigalling that they, along with the US, believed Mr Rabin had conceded enough.

Israel said yesterday it had agreed with the European Community to continue talks on an expansion of the 1975 co-operation agreements on trade, which had been used as an incentive by Europe to increase the pressure over the deportees.

Douglas Hurd said before a meeting of the EC-Israeli Co-operation Council in Brussels on Monday: 'I hope very much the Council will not be put in the position of having to address the issue of the 1975 agreements in the absence of a solution to the problem of the deportees.'

(Photograph omitted)