The Reagan Administration, concerned that a public squabble would only stiffen Israeli intransigence, turned to quiet diplomacy and temperate language Monday in an uphill effort to persuade the Jerusalem government to cancel plans to expel nine Palestinian activists.
"There is nothing further to be gained by making a public statement, and it might even be counterproductive," a State Department official said. "When the Israelis feel they are being boxed into a corner, they sometimes lock themselves into a position they can't get out of.
"We are telling them what our position is on deportation--it doesn't solve the problem," the official said. "The Israelis know how we feel about it, but they have to come to their own conclusions."
He said the Administration has determined that the chances for any easing of the expulsion orders will be greater if the United States gives Israel enough maneuvering room to permit Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government to change its plans without the appearance of knuckling under to U.S. pressure.
The United States attempted last week to dissuade Israel from throwing out Palestinians in the wake of the riots that swept the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. At that time, U.S. spokesmen said publicly that expulsions would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
The Israeli government scorned this advice from its closest ally and announced expulsion orders against nine Palestinian activists Sunday, although they will be allowed to appeal the ruling to the Israeli courts.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that Washington has not withdrawn its opposition to the expulsions, but he clearly was attempting to keep his rhetoric non-confrontational.
"We've made our views known on that subject. . . . I really have nothing to add to our position," he said. "Israeli leaders are well aware of our views and, beyond that, I would only note that there is a judicial appeal process that is apparently still involved in these cases."
An official who asked not to be identified by name said that the United States is counting on the appeal process to reverse--or at least delay--the expulsion orders.
"It is a long procedure," the official said. "Maybe the Israeli legal system can work for them."
The Administration also appears to be reluctant to engage in a high-profile confrontation with Israel. If Israel rejects U.S. criticism--as it often does--Washington is left with the unpalatable choice of imposing sanctions against a friendly government that enjoys tremendous political support in America or of appearing to be impotent in dealing with a regime that relies on the United States for extensive military and economic aid.
The United States appeared to lose just such a confrontation last month when the Israeli government publicly rejected an American appeal to rely on "non-lethal" methods of crowd control and to avoid the use of live ammunition against West Bank and Gaza demonstrators.
The Israeli government, however, did change its riot control tactics. For the time being, at least, Israel's actions appear to comply with the U.S. proposals even though its words continue to reject them.
A Palestinian woman putting out laundry in the West Bank village of Ram was shot and killed Sunday by a soldier who was part of a unit sent to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators. Army authorities said a preliminary investigation indicated unspecified regulations had been violated, and the soldier and his commanding officer were suspended from duty.
Redman said the U.S. government "expressed its sincere regret over this tragedy" but noted there has been "a general lessening of violence" in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.
U.S. officials were somewhat reluctant to claim credit for Israel's greater use of rubber bullets, tear gas and protective riot shields. The Administration probably is concerned that the Israeli government would be forced by domestic political considerations to reverse the action if the move were perceived to have been the result of U.S. pressure.
Other officials said that Washington hopes to see similar results concerning the expulsion orders. One official said he has no idea where the nine Palestinians will go if Jordan and other Arab nations refuse to accept them.
In Jerusalem, Shamir defended the planned expulsions Monday.
"The deportations are the maximum penalty currently at our disposal, and we use this punishment sparingly, in the most limited form," Shamir told state-run Israel radio. "We use it for persons who are incorrigible, who continue to inflame and incite, generate disturbances and also cause bloodshed."
On another issue, Redman offered U.S. government sympathy "to the families of any innocent victims killed" in the latest Israeli bombing raid in Lebanon. "Incidents such as these point out the continuing danger of escalating violence in the region," Redman said.