Clinton said to be pressing Israel to accept return of Palestinian deportees

January 27, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- With the 15-month-old Middle East peace talks hanging in the balance, the Clinton administration is exerting heavy diplomatic pressure on Israel to take back almost 400 Palestinian deportees before the U.N. Security Council considers sanctions against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government, U.S. officials say.

The new administration has told the Israeli government that the Palestinians, trapped in a tent city in the snowy mountains between Israel and Lebanon, are a source of continuing international condemnation for Israel and of severe embarrassment for the United States.

In effect, the American message is: You created this mess, you clean it up.

The issue was brought to a head late Monday when U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended that the Security Council impose sanctions on Israel unless Mr. Rabin's government complies with an earlier resolution calling on Israel to let the deportees return.

If sanctions come to a vote, the United States will be forced either to allow punishment of its closest Middle East ally or to disrupt Security Council cooperation by casting the first veto by any member in more than two years. Neither outcome is acceptable to the United States, officials said yesterday.

To avoid that stark choice, the administration plans to stretch out the Security Council consideration for a minimum of several weeks to give American diplomats time to pressure Mr. Rabin to make the problem go away by allowing the Palestinians to return.

"We don't want to be trapped into being forced to make a decision on the veto," one State Department official said. Another official added that the Security Council's normal procedures are so "ponderous" that an early vote is unlikely.

For years, successive administrations have assured Israel that the United States would always veto sanctions against the Israelis.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher left little doubt yesterday that an American veto is no longer a sure thing. He dismissed the issue as "hypothetical." Other officials said no decision has been made yet, but they said Israel would be making a mistake if it chose to rely on a veto.

Nevertheless, in Jerusalem, Mr. Rabin told a closed-doors meeting of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee that he is counting on a veto. "Until now, no American administration has allowed sanctions against the state of Israel. I hope this will continue," Mr. Rabin said, according to an official who briefed journalists.

White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said Mr. Clinton raised the issue in a Saturday telephone conversation with Mr. Rabin. Mr. Stephanopoulos has declined to discuss the substance of that talk. But he left no doubt that Mr. Clinton wants the issue resolved before the Security Council has a chance to act.

"The president continues to hope that the parties work this out among themselves," he said.

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