Leading Article: An offer that changes nothing

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The Independent Online
THE moral and diplomatic quagmire created by Israel's deportation of some 400 militant Palestinian Muslims has been deepened by the compromise package it negotiated with the Clinton administration. It is scarcely credible that both the Israelis and the Clinton administration did not foresee its rejection by the Palestinians themselves. Happy to be on the moral, if not physical, high ground, the exiles are insisting that they must all be allowed back.

They know that the spectacle of their encampment on a freezing, snow-littered mountainside has gained them much sympathy and has acutely embarrassed Yitzhak Rabin's government in Jerusalem. They know the episode is endangering the resumption of the Middle East peace talks, which they fiercely oppose, and forcing the Palestine Liberation Organisation, normally their adversary, into reluctant solidarity with them: the Palestinian negotiators say they will not return to the table until all the deportees are allowed back.

All in all, thanks to Mr Rabin's initial hot- headed miscalculation, this represents a propaganda bonanza of unprecedented dimensions, not to be thrown away lightly by accepting a partial Israeli climb-down. Their case has the support of the UN Security Council's Resolution 799, condemning their deportation as a breach of the Geneva Convention and demanding their safe return to the occupied territories. In New York a divisive Security Council debate and vote on sanctions against Israel are expected. As part of Monday's compromise package, the Americans are understood to have promised to protect Israel from sanctions. By using their veto, they will lay themselves open to charges of double standards: of being happy to support the implementation of UN resolutions directed at an enemy such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, but not those against Israel. The result is likely to be a cooling towards the US in friendly Arab states, and a propaganda gain for Islamic fundamentalism.

Mr Rabin's concessions are an admission of the weakness of Israel's case, not least by the Clinton administration. If it is wrong to deport 400 people with no due process of law, it cannot be less wrong if that number is reduced by repatriation to 300, and the 'sentence' on the rest is reduced from two years or 18 months to one year or less.

Warren Christopher, President Clinton's Secretary of State, was being either nave or unwarrantably optimistic when he commented that Israel's offer made further action by the Security Council unnecessary, and even liable to undercut 'the process which is already under way'. The Arab world, and most other Muslim states, will see that judgement as confirmation of American double standards. A few weeks ago they were indignant that the outgoing Bush administration seemed happy to bomb Iraq in the name of international law, but not (thanks in part to British and French misgivings) to protect Bosnian Muslims from the Serbs.

The Arabs were always nervous that President Clinton, having wooed the American Jewish vote, would protect Israel regardless of the principles at stake. It seems those fears are being justified. Unless the Americans have something up their sleeves, their standing as brokers of a Middle East peace settlement is in danger of being severely compromised.