Leading Article: Israel in the wilderness

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The Independent Online
THE ineptitude of the Israeli government is surprising and worrying. By forcing the Palestinian deportees to spend Christmas in the desert, it has caused the Middle East peace talks to be suspended, handed a propaganda coup to the Palestinians, pushed the PLO into reluctant support of the Hamas extremists, exacerbated violence in the occupied territories and brought down on its head a torrent of criticism from the United Nations, the European Community, the Red Cross, the Vatican and many friends of Israel. This is quite a record for a country normally regarded even by its harshest critics as a skilful operator.

It has even managed to generate sympathy for members of Hamas, which must deserve a special award from the public relations industry. Hamas is an extremist organisation dedicated to the destruction of Israel, the disruption of the peace talks and the killing of Israelis. It is deeply disliked by the PLO. Whether or not the men now camping in the desert are personally guilty of murder, nobody has denied that they are supporters of Hamas and therefore morally implicated in its crimes. In any other circumstances, their demand to return to a state they do not recognise and wish to destroy would evoke very limited international support. As it is, Israel is helping them to pose as martyrs.

The Israeli government could have prevented all this by telephoning the Lebanese authorities in advance to ask if that number of deportees would be accepted. Had the answer been no, the men could have been interned or put on trial if there was evidence against them. If there was no evidence, they should not have been picked up. For sheer foolishness, the operation is hard to beat.

Somehow, Israel must find its way back to common sense. As a first step it should immediately provide open access for the Red Cross. Whatever the deportees have done, or thought of doing, there can be no justification for denying them food, shelter and medical care. Although they are technically in Lebanon, the territory is under Israeli control, so the Israelis, who also put them there, cannot escape responsibility. Such a move would enable Israel to claw back a little of the moral credit it has lost. To bicker about legal niceties while the deportees go without water is merely to compound the initial error and confirm the impression that the Israelis have lost touch with reality.

The next priority is to prepare the ground for restarting the peace talks as soon as the Clinton administration takes office. The Israeli government should rethink its refusal to talk directly to the PLO. The present arrangement, whereby the PLO directs the Palestinian delegation from the background, is a foolish fiction that obscures reality and complicates the talks. In the public relations battle, Israel could only gain if Yasser Arafat appeared on world-wide television in place of the civilised, articulate Hanan Ashrawi.