Leading Article: Caught in the trap

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IN THE breakdown of the Middle East peace talks, the participants have played their allotted roles with the predictability of actors trapped in an old script. When the Hamas fundamentalist organisation kidnapped and murdered an Israeli border guard, it must have known that retaliation would be swift and severe. That has always been the Israeli way. Hamas would also have been able to calculate that, if the retaliation went far enough, the Palestine Liberation Organisation would feel obliged to demonstrate solidarity by withdrawing its support for the talks. That suited Hamas very nicely. Unlike the PLO, it has never accepted the idea of a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel. In its hostility to the talks it can therefore make common cause with parts of the Israeli opposition. Both, for the time being, have gained what they want.

On the face of it, therefore, the Israeli government has fallen straight into a trap. Of course, its options must have looked limited. Public opinion was outraged by the murder and would not have accepted anything less than a dramatic reaction, especially as the government's critics have been accusing it of losing control over the West Bank. The government can also make the case that Hamas is not representative, that it is in competition with the PLO, that it stirs up trouble in the occupied territories, and that it is fundamentally opposed to a peace settlement. Therefore, if a large number of its activists are removed, its influence should diminish, thereby making peace easier to achieve.

But the logic of that argument is at odds with reality. The more Palestinian feelings are inflamed, the more they turn to extremists and the weaker becomes the authority of those who support negotiations. The expulsion of the 418 could create double that number of new recruits. The job of the peace- makers will then become still more difficult.

It will not become any easier until more people are willing to depart from the old script. Yitzhak Rabin raised many hopes after his election by accepting the principle of giving up land for peace and offering the Palestinians more than they had been offered by the previous Israeli government. Since then, disappointment has started to creep in, not only among Palestinians but also among Mr Rabin's liberal supporters. The deportations will increase their gloom. There was no demonstrable need to deport so many Palestinians or to treat them so harshly, leaving many of them on the border with their hands bound for 12 hours or more. An over-reaction of this sort suggests weakness, not strength, and plays into the hands of extremists on both sides.

With a bit of luck the breakdown will not prove fatal. There was bound to be a hiatus in the talks until the Clinton administration took over in Washington. Without consistent American pressure the two sides are probably incapable of making progress. Bill Clinton is sensibly thinking of appointing James Baker as envoy to the talks, but even another appointee, though he would take longer to pick up the threads, would have a strong interest in resuming negotiations. This is, therefore, a better time than most for the participants to strike postures. If they are genuinely interested in a deal, they will eventually return to the table. If they are not interested, then the specific reason for breakdown will hardly matter.