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Rabin's hard line plays well at home

YITZHAK RABIN may have increased support for Hamas in the occupied territories by deporting 418 Palestinians, but he has also hugely strengthened his own support in Israel. The latest opinion poll, published by the daily Yediot Ahronot, showed that 91 per cent of Israelis support the decision to deport the Palestinians.

While pictures of the deportees flashed to the world won them international sympathy, the Israeli army last week offered for distribution photographs of the Palestinians bound and gagged, knowing they would fuel support for the expulsions within Israel. The message of the pictures was clear: Israel had crushed Hamas.

Furthermore, while the deportation decision appears to have forged unity - at least temporarily - between Hamas and factions supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), it has also brought Mr Rabin support from both left-wing cabinet members and from the far right.

Yesterday, Hamas and PLO factions issued a joint leaflet calling for 'comprehensive escalation' in the uprising. Faisal Husseini, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the Middle East peace talks, welcomed Yasser Arafat's overtures to Hamas, which include an invitation to meetings in Tunis. At the same time Tsomet, a right-wing Israeli party, was to meet Mr Rabin to consider joining the government.

In Israel, the opposition to the decision comes, predictably, from human rights bodies, liberal lawyers and academics and other professionals. Many such people are supporters of the left-wing party Meretz. But Meretz is divided; the party's rank and file condemned the deportations but several of its leading lights, all human rights activists, backed it.

There are signs of significant dissent. For example, news reports said the state attorney, Dorit Beinish, refused to present the government's case when civil rights lawyers appealed last week.

Supreme Court judges voted 5- 2 to allow the deportations to go ahead. But the decision of the court was hedged: it refused to delay the deportations but also told the government it had 30 days in which to justify its case. When this hearing takes place, however, it is unlikely that the court will rule post facto that the deportees should be brought back.

In a first attempt to bring the Palestinians home, lawyers yesterday lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court, but the judges postponed a decision until today.

In the Israeli press, criticism of the deportations has focused more on practical mistakes by Mr Rabin than on moral or legal rights and wrongs. Yoel Marcus, a columnist in Ha'aretz, said yesterday that Mr Rabin had blundered by failing to realise that Lebanon might not take the deportees and by failing to anticipate the international opposition. The deportations have hit back at Israel 'like a boomerang', he said.

Mr Marcus nevertheless believes Mr Rabin made an astute political calculation in terms of domestic opinion which could yet place him in a stronger position to make peace. Mr Rabin's ratings have been dropping in recent weeks, Mr Marcus argues, because of renewed security fears. 'Now the public have such confidence in Rabin that he could give back the whole of the Golan and nobody would complain.'

Mr Marcus added: 'If Rabin wants to go a long way in the peace process he needs the public on his side . . . In due course the decision (to deport) will make it easier for him to make concessions. If he had not done this his government might have fallen.'

The argument that Mr Rabin has alienated moderate Palestinian opinion and made it more difficult for the PLO to negotiate is rejected by Mr Marcus and many other analysts.

That there is so little Israeli objection to the deportations should not come as a surprise, says a liberal Israeli academic, an expert on the radical right. 'Israelis, including Labour supporters, have never stopped suspecting the Arabs. We do not trust the world either - it is in our nature. We like to think everyone is against us.'

One analyst said the heightened sense of Israeli solidarity may have been partly caused by reports of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. The human rights groups that have stood out against the deportations have been harassed by angry callers who accuse them of betrayal. 'It is very sad. It shows that Israeli people have not yet understood that human rights are a fundamental principal not based on political expediency,' said Aren Back, of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group.