Pragmatic Rabin gambling on expulsions to strengthen his hand politically

December 21, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Yitzhak Rabin's decision to deport about 415 Palestinians from Israel was a jolt to those who saw him as the best hope for peace and moderation.

The man whose election in June promised to steer Israel gently to the left seemed last week to have swerved sharply to the right.

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council condemned Israel for what Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called "a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention."

Yesterday, the racist, extreme right-wing Kach movement proclaimed Mr. Rabin an "honorary member." It applauded the prime minister "for proving that Arabs, can, indeed, be bused out of Israel."

Today, Mr. Rabin is to meet with two small right-wing parties in an apparent attempt to see if they will join his governing coalition, thus further bolstering the hard-liners.

Is there a new face to Yitzhak Rabin, who promised to replace extremism with negotiation and conflict with peace?

The sweeping arrests of 1,500 Palestinians and the expulsion of 415 of them into Lebanon on Thursday have turned topsy-turvy many of the political assumptions of Israelis and Palestinians.

Evidence of that is the discomfort of the Israeli Supreme Court, which has been thrust into the job of putting a stamp of legal approval on government actions that the rest of the world condemns.

Yesterday, the court for the second time in four days heard an appeal of the deportation. It is expected to rule today.

The stranded deportees have coalesced worldwide condemnation of the Israeli deportation. Last night was their fourth night camped on a freezing hillside between checkpoints of the Lebanese, who will not take them, and the Israelis, who will not let them return.

For Mr. Rabin, the deportations were a calculated risk. He expected the international reaction.

It would be worth the temporary outcry, he concluded, to accomplish two things: to bolster domestic support that was flagging after a rash of Arab violence; and to weaken the Islamic Hamas, a growing force opposed to the Middle East peace talks.

His first goal was met. In a startling show of solidarity, Israelis fell in line behind Mr. Rabin's action. A poll taken last week showed 91 percent approval among the Israeli public. Even the liberal, left-wing parties supported the deportations, which have long been criticized by other countries.

And the deportations did deliver a blow to Hamas, although Israeli security sources acknowledge that the roundup did not reach hard-core, gun-toting fundamentalists, so more violence can be expected.

But Mr. Rabin's calculations remain to be fully proven. He can be pleased, so far, that the international outcry is mostly bluster. His key ally, the United States, balanced its vote against Israel in the U.N. Security Council with criticism of the kidnap-murder of an Israeli border policeman last week.

Arab participants suspended the peace talks, but none quit them outright -- even the Palestinians are wavering on that threat. A break in the talks was expected anyway until after the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton.

But the refusal by Lebanon to take the deportees leaves them as a sore embarrassment to Israel, shivering in the cold before the television cameras.

And the blow to Hamas may serve to unite Palestinians and reignite their uprising. A Palestinian leaflet issued yesterday announced the cooperation of two bitter foes: Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas announced yesterday that it will meet with the PLO in Tunis, Tunisia, an alliance that will send shivers up Israel's spine if it holds.

But if there are questions about Mr. Rabin's calculations, there should have been no surprise he is making them. Mr. Rabin appeared to be a centrist mostly in comparison with the hard-line right-winger he replaced, Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir.

Despite Mr. Rabin's pre-election vows to end the right-wing's icy stalemate with Palestinians, he has always been motivated by pragmatic considerations, not moral stands.

Moderates were lulled by his words. After his election, he talked of setting moral standards and of providing an example to the world with fair treatment of Palestinians in the occupied lands.

DTC He promised to give them rights. In his first months in office, he let several hundred Palestinians out of prison, unsealed some houses that had been cemented shut by the army, and converted 11 deportation orders to jail terms.

But to Palestinian eyes, the new Rabin looked much like the old. They remembered him as defense minister at the start of the intifada in 1987, when he vowed to crush the insurgence with "might, power and beatings."

They noted that none of his "good-will" actions since taking office were made in the name of principle. While releasing prisoners, his secret service arrested more; while unsealing houses, his Army began using anti-tank grenades to destroy others; while canceling deportation orders, he refused to renounce the use of expulsion as a weapon.

"We were better off under Shamir," said one relative of a deported Palestinian. "Rabin talks a lot, but hurts us more."

If his recent actions pleased the right wing, the prime minister was prepared to take advantage of it. He scheduled meetings today with the National Religious Party and Tsomet, two conservative parties he would like to include in his ruling coalition.

But any drift rightward has its limits. His major partner in the coalition is the liberal Meretz Party, and yesterday they said their support of the deportations did not mean changing the composition of the government.

"If Rabin decides to switch his government," said Dedi Zucker, a Meretz legislator, "I think nothing will come out of it."

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