U.S. warns Israel: Return deportees or harm alliance Palestinians' fate may shape future of Clinton policy

January 31, 1993|By Norman Kempster | Norman Kempster,Los Angeles Times The New York Times contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- In a test of wills that could set the tone o Middle East policy for the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has told Israel that it must permit the return of the 400 Palestinians it deported if it hopes to continue good relations with the U.S. government.

The message is a simple one: Even if the Palestinians are as guilty of provoking terrorism as the Israeli government contends, nothing justifies their confinement in a snowy no-man's land between Israel and Lebanon.

U.S. officials say that the only way to defuse the crisis -- and to keep the United Nations Security Council from considering sanctions against Israel -- is for Israel's government to allow the .. deportees, mostly members of two extremist Muslim groups, to return to Israeli-controlled territory, even if only to Israeli jails.

So far, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has rejected the urgings of his country's closest ally. Mr. Rabin ordered the deportation of the Palestinians, after the slayings of Israeli policemen, allegedly by Muslim extremists. He asserted that the action was needed to deter violence by Muslim fundamentalists opposed both to the Israeli government and to the peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian delegation dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

That violence continued yesterday as two Israeli soldiers were slain in an ambush in the Gaza Strip. Some Israeli officials said the shootings, which they attributed to an armed wing of the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas, might affect the tone of the Security Council debate by reminding diplomats that the expulsions were carried out not in a vacuum but in response to attacks.

"The terror is still there, and nobody in the Security Council denounces it," an Israeli official said. "We are in a terrible campaign against terrorism, and if someone in New York needs the proof, he got it today."

Mr. Rabin maintains that his effort to protect life and property must take precedence over Washington's global diplomatic concerns.

Usually, that argument would be persuasive. But in this case, Israeli intransigence could poison President Clinton's relations with the Arab world, damage U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq and hamstring the administration's hopes for using the United Nations to sustain post-Cold War order.

Despite Mr. Clinton's generally pro-Israel leanings, U.S. officials say, Mr. Rabin cannot lay waste to U.S. policy without straining the overall Washington-Jerusalem relationship.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Christopher have talked by phone with Mr. Rabin since the administration took office Jan. 20, and Mr. Christopher is planning a get-acquainted trip to Europe and the Middle East late next month. If the deportee issue is not resolved by then, Mr. Christopher will take it up in Jerusalem.

Mr. Rabin seems convinced that he can face down the new administration, which was elected in November with the aid of American Jewish voters. But officials say it would be a major mistake for Mr. Rabin to abuse Mr. Clinton's good will.

Mr. Rabin re-established the close U.S.-Israel bond last year after ousting Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the June election. Relations between Mr. Shamir and former President George Bush were marked by an animosity that strained all government-to-government dealings.

Although Mr. Rabin and Mr. Bush worked together easily, foreign policy experts in Israel and the United States expected the relationship to become even closer with Mr. Clinton in the White House.

But if Israel refuses to permit the return of the deportees, the Security Council almost certainly will consider economic or other sanctions. The council earlier approved a resolution, with U.S. support, demanding that the Palestinians be allowed to go home. But that resolution contained no enforcement provisions, and Arab delegations are lining up support for a new resolution that would impose a penalty.

Washington hopes to delay U.N. action long enough to give Israel a chance to back down. But if the deportees remain in their squalid camp long enough, the Security Council is likely to consider sanctions.

The United States, like the other four permanent members of the Security Council, has veto power. And after hinting that the administration might not cast its veto, U.S. officials now say privately that it is inconceivable that Washington would let sanctions be imposed on Israel.

But officials also say such a veto would spell disaster for U.S. foreign policy. The immediate effect would be to shatter U.S. relations with the Arab world, probably doing irreparable damage to the U.S.-brokered Middle East peace process, and to the coalition that fought the Persian Gulf war and continues to restrain Iraq.

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