WASHINGTON -- In his first major foreign policy initiative, President Clinton has ordered Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to the Middle East to try to break the current Arab-Israeli deadlock over 400 Palestinians deported from Israel to Lebanon.
The impasse had forced the postponement of next week's ninth round of multilateral Middle East peace talks after the Palestinians rejected a U.S.-brokered compromise that would have allowed 100 of the deportees to return to Israel immediately, with all able to return by year's end.
Mr. Christopher hopes to reschedule the talks after his trip, possibly for mid-April.
Despite the diplomatic standoff, Mr. Clinton decided yesterday that it was time for the United States to try to "reinvigorate" the peace process and demonstrate quickly the "high priority" of the Middle East on his agenda.
In a message clearly aimed at Palestinian extremist groups, he said in a statement issued by the White House: "Those who oppose the process, who seek to subvert it through violence and intimidation, will find no tolerance here for their methods."
The thrust of U.S. policy is to isolate these groups -- such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- and to convince moderate Palestinians that it is in their interest to continue seeking a regional settlement to the decades-old Arab-Israeli confrontation.
Mr. Clinton said: "Those who are willing to make peace will find in my administration a full partner. This is an historic moment. It can slip away all too easily. But if we seize the opportunity we can begin now to construct a peaceful Middle East for future generations."
A series of talks with area leaders, including the Palestinians, over the past two days has convinced Mr. Christopher that all remain committed to the long-term peace process, although they want what a senior State Department official called "a short pause" in the direct negotiations.
Among regional leaders called by Mr. Christopher were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel; Faisal Husseini, a senior Palestinian representative; Jordan's King Hussein; Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon; and Foreign Ministers Amr Moussa of Egypt, Farouk Shaara of Syria and Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia, a senior U.S. official said.
A senior official said: "What I think is particularly important is that in all of his discussions, all of these leaders reiterated a sustained commitment of their governments to the Arab-Israeli peace process and the importance of getting back to the negotiations.
"What they told us was they simply didn't want to face a decision now in terms of the immediately upcoming round of multi-laterals [negotiations], which were to start next week," said the official.
When the Palestinian deportees, left since Dec. 17 in a barren strip of land along the Israeli border with Lebanon for alleged links with extremist groups, heard that next week's session of the peace talks had been postponed, they said it showed Arab rejection of U.S.-Israeli efforts to sideline their plight.
The latest U.S. initiative was cleared with the Russians, co-sponsors of the peace talks.
Mr. Christopher will fly to the area on Feb. 17, staying until Feb. 24. On his way home he will stop off to brief Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev.
In the Middle East, Mr. Christopher is expected to visit Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Officials indicated he would not shuttle back and forth between countries, but would visit each to introduce himself to the major players and probe their approaches to the peace process.
It will be his first overseas trip as secretary of state.
The Clinton administration's measured optimism is based on the notion that the deportee issue, which was totally deadlocked last week, has been eased from absolute standstill to possible diplomatic movement, with 100 of the deportees able to return to Israel, and the others promised eventual return. All would be able to seek a review of their cases by an Israeli military review board.
U.S. officials maintain this process is consistent United Nations resolution 799, condemning the deportations as a violation of international law and calling for the return of all the deportees.
"It is a breakthrough in the situation from total stalemate. . . . There is now a process," said one official, adding the United States wants to see "action immediately" on the Israeli agreement to accept the return of 100 deportees.
At the United Nations, a spokesman said Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali would welcome the the return of 100 deportees "provided it was a first step toward implementation of Resolution 799."
Arab ambassadors at the world body are seeking a Security Council debate on the deportation issue and pressing for sanctions against Israel, initiatives which the Clinton administration now regards as "unnecessary."