Settle the Deportee Question
On his maiden visit to the Middle East as United States secretary of state, Warren Christopher should lay the foundation for the revival of the Arab-Israeli peace talks without the deportees' cloud hanging over the next round of peace negotiations. It is far better to postpone the resumption of the peace talks by another two or three months, provided that the question of the expulsion is settled and all the deportees have been returned. The US-Israel agreement to allow 100 deportees to return home, with the rest to follow suit by the end of 1993, is flawed and impractical.
This arrangement has dissuaded Arab states, under pressure, from insisting on proposing a United Nations resolution that would impose sanctions – as evidenced by the latest UN resolution urging Israel to take back all 400 Palestinians and calling on the Palestinians to attend to the peace negotiations. This arrangement, however, neither offers the incentive for the Palestinians to resume the peace talks nor creates the disincentive for the Islamic extremist movement Hamas to cease its violent activities; nor does it validate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's iron-fist policy needed to deter Hamas in the future. Some people say that if Mr. Rabin concedes under pressure and permits all the exiles to return soon, it will strengthen the Palestinians' hand and will stiffen their demands. But those who hold this view underestimate the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The secular Palestinian nationalists know their strengths and weaknesses. It is one thing to pressure Israel through the US to return the deportees, as required by UN Security Council resolution and which the US supported; it is an entirely different matter to try to push Israel into making certain concessions that clearly jeopardize its security. Returning all the deportees at once does not constitute such a danger. The Rabin government needs to project strength and determination in dealing with elements that undermine Israel's security. There is a growing Israeli outcry to stop the peace negotiations as long as terror and violence is conducted against Israelis. But the government could resort to many stern measures to suppress Hamas other than expulsion. The diplomatic maneuvering on the other hand, designed to return the deportees in stages to "save face," further aggravates existing tensions, entangles the peace process, and makes the Rabin government look even weaker.
Israel's efforts to break Hamas's leadership structure by the expulsion have produced the opposite effect. Within days of the deportation, new leaders came to the fore, with more money pouring from inside and outside the territories and with a greater conviction than ever to undermine Israel and the peace process. The immediate return of the deportees and their detention in Israel, if necessary, pending review of their individual status will put an end to this tragic error and will take from Hamas the ve ry weapon it has used so skillfully.
Finally, contrary to what Rabin maintains, the rules of the peace negotiations have changed. Rabin wants to "continue to negotiate as though there is no terror and cope with terror as if there are no peace negotiations." As long as there are no specific guidelines to which both sides agree, however, the continuation of the peace talks will hinge on the actions of one side or the other and their unilateral responses. TO prevent a breakdown in future negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians must come to a better understanding of how to deal with repeated outbursts of violence over which neither side has control.
More important, Mr. Christopher must ensure that the peace process resumes with a clean slate. To that end, he needs to persuade Rabin to cut his losses and agree on a specific date – 30 to 60 days – by which time all deportees are returned. The peace talks should not resume before then. In return, Christopher should put equal pressure on the Palestinian nationalist representatives to ease their demands from Israel on the powers of the administrative council to be elected and get on with the business of self-rule. Moreover, they must be persuaded that it is in their self-interest to begin self-government now before they are overpowered by the growing strength of their staunch rivals Hamas and Jihad. Certainly there is no guarantee that even if all the deportees are returned home, Hamas, the Lebanese based Hizab Allah, or any other extremist Palestinians will stop trying to sabotage the peace talks. Legitimate and measured Israeli response to Hamas' provocation, however, is unlikely to torpedo the peace talks; the Palestinians sitting at the negotiating table oppose Hamas vehemently and would prefer to go on with the process and show some tangible gains. Their current solidarity with Hamas is a necessary evil meant to preserve their political integrity as representatives of all Palestinians. Christopher's success depends on a complete resolution of the deportees question and on a renewed Palestinian commitment to negotiate self-rule in earnest.