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Israel Bows to UN Pressure, Allows Deported Palestinians to Return

By Norman Kempster
and Mark Fineman

The Los Angeles Times

UNITED NATIONS

In an effort to head off threatened U.N. economic sanctions, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced Monday that his government would allow the immediate return of 100 Palestinians deported six weeks ago and would take back the remaining 300 before the end of this year.

Although the compromise falls far short of compliance with a U.N. Security Council demand that all of the deportees be repatriated at once, Secretary of State Warren Christopher hailed the agreement as a "breakthrough" which renders additional Security Council action unnecessary and should clear the way for resumption of Middle East peace talks.

Talking to his first formal press conference following a working lunch with U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Christopher said that the Israeli steps were hammered out in telephone negotiations between Jerusalem and the Clinton administration. He said he did not know if the formula would be acceptable to other U.N. members but he made it clear that from the U.S. point of view, the action was enough.

Rabin, who announced the plan at a press conference in his office following a special Monday Cabinet meeting, said it was part of a "package deal," in which he said the U.S. government promised, in return for Israel's partial reversal, to veto any sanctions the Security Council might consider.

Christopher declined to go that far, describing talk of vetoes as "hypothetical." But he left little doubt that the United States feels free to head off any condemnation of Israel now that the Jerusalem government has gone part way in meeting earlier U.N. demands.

"With the steps announced today, the United States believes it is time to look ahead and concentrate on restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process," Christopher said. He said that the United States and Russia, as cosponsors of the 15-month-old Middle East peace talks, would soon suggest a date for resumption of the separate but parallel negotiations between Israel and each of its Arab neighbors, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

It was far from certain, however, that the Arab parties would agree with the United States that the Israeli step was sufficient. Palestinian reaction to the decision from the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia to the Israeli-occupied territories was equally swift, overwhelmingly negative and boded ill for Christopher's hopes of "restarting" the negotiations.

There was no immediate comment on the offer from the deportees themselves, who have had no official access to food, clothing and medicine -- let alone telephones -- since they were expelled by Israeli defense forces on Dec. 17. But most indicated in recent interviews that they would not accept any offer short of the repatriation of all of them at once.

Yasser Abed Raboo, a member of the PLO executive committee, denounced Rabin's offer from Tunis, saying that it was a gimmick designed solely to circumvent U.N. resolution 799 demanding that Israel immediately return all 415 men originally expelled from their homes in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the PLO-backed Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, said that the PLO would not accept "any kind of deal or compromise that will allow expulsions to be used."

Nevertheless, Christopher treated the announcement as a major victory for Clinton foreign policy. The secretary of state had warned Rabin over the weekend that failure to resolve the dispute over the deportees would put severe strains on the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Rabin met for more than two hours Sunday with the U.S. ambassador to Israel in an effort to craft some sort of compromise.

Despite the public support given to the deportees by the PLO and by Arab governments, the radical Islamic organization they are alleged to be members of, Hamas, is a rival to the PLO for support among West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians. Unlike the PLO, which now reluctantly accepts the existence of Israel, Hamas and the other militant groups want to destroy Israel and set up a pan-Arab Islamic state.

The deportees were trapped in the wet and frozen no man's land between Israel's security zone in southern Lebanon and the front lines of the Lebanese army when Lebanon's government surprised the Israelis by refusing to take them in. Sixteen have been returned already after Israeli authorities said they had been deported by mistake.