How crucial are the Palestinians to the Arab-Israeli peace talks? Can Jerusalem make peace with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and forget the Palestinians? And how important are the negotiations to the Palestinians themselves?
In a game of diplomatic dare and double dare, the Israelis, their Arab neighbors and the United States are about to find out whether the Palestinians are as central to the Middle East conflict as all have assumed in the past 25 years of peacemaking efforts.
Members of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks reaffirmed in background discussions last week that they cannot return until agreement is reached on the repatriation of the Palestinians Israel exiled to southern Lebanon three months ago as supporters of militant Islamic groups.
"The train is leaving the station, and the Palestinians are going to miss it again, worrying about something that is really peripheral," a senior Israeli official said, commenting acidly on the Palestinian refusal last week to accept the invitation to the renewed talks. "We are not going to be held hostage to their domestic politics--and neither will the Syrians, Jordanians or Lebanese.
"If the Palestinians don't come, it's their loss," the Israeli added, asking that he not be quoted by name. "They worry about an imposed settlement, but not participating is the best way to ensure exactly that. Palestinians present or not, the peace talks will proceed."
The Palestinians, in fact, want to remain in the negotiations, according to delegation members.
"In no way, shape or form is the Palestinian side intending to withdraw," a senior member of the delegation said, explaining that it refused to accept Washington's invitation because the deportee issue has not been resolved and that this in turn raises questions about U.S. mediation.
Crucial for the Palestinian delegation, and for the Palestine Liberation Organization to which it reports, is a firm Israeli commitment not to deport Palestinians again, a pledge that could be held up to an increasingly skeptical constituency as a major gain.
"We are losing majority support for negotiations," a local Palestinian leader said, asking not to be quoted by name. "Israel's actions are giving credit to our opponents, to Hamas (the militant Islamic resistance movement) . . . to those who reject the negotiations, who reject the very concept of a settlement. We need something that will preserve the peace process."
The timetable for the actual return of the 396 suspected supporters of Hamas and other Islamic groups who are still in southern Lebanon is less important than the principle of no further deportations, according to senior members of the Palestinian delegation.
Israeli officials counter that, while Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is ready to make conciliatory gestures on other issues, he has indeed hardened his position on the deportation question and will tell President Clinton at their White House meeting today to call the Palestinian bluff and thus rescue the talks from the most radical Arab elements.
And the United States, having promised Rabin there would be no pressure for further concessions on the deportees, now finds itself embarrassed by its inability to mediate in this impasse.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher believed he had put together a Palestinian-Israeli deal during his visit to Jerusalem last month, only to find it had evaporated overnight when the Israelis, by some accounts, reneged on assurances given Christopher by Rabin himself.
"Until 2 a.m. we had an agreement in principle and were working on the details," a source close to the Palestinian delegation here recounted. "At dawn, it was gone. . . . Israel would not make the commitment (against future deportations), although Rabin apparently had told Christopher he would."
Palestinian leaders, both here and at the PLO headquarters in Tunis, now hope that a six-point agreement originally brokered by Christopher on the deportation issue can be revived during the Clinton-Rabin meeting today.
"Perhaps Rabin wanted to make the concession to Clinton, rather than to Christopher, and thus get 'paid' more for it," the Palestinian source said. "If so, things could get back on track, and the U.S. confidence will be justified; if not, then we are indeed in trouble. . . . We are at the moment of truth."
Although the Palestinian leadership will not decide on its participation in the next round of negotiations until close to the April 20 resumption, a top PLO official, Farouk Kaddoumi, said last week that the Arab states might indeed return without the Palestinian delegation.
"The question is whether it would work without us," a senior Palestinian delegate to the talks said here. "For years we have been saying that the Palestinian question is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. . . . Does Israel really think it can resolve that conflict without resolving this issue? Does the United States?"
Israel and the United States are consequently seen as daring the Palestinians to stand back from the talks, risking that their interests will be ignored in a Middle East settlement, and the Palestinians in return are daring the others, including the Arab states, to attempt to reach a settlement without them.
"The Arab world is not in the mood for private deals, for new Camp Davids," an adviser to the Palestinian delegation said, referring to the Israeli-Egyptian accords reached 15 years ago under U.S. mediation at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., outside Washington.
"An Arab regime that did a Camp David, ignoring the broader interests of the Arab world and particularly the Palestinian question, would put itself at serious risk," the adviser added.
Another Palestinian political scientist, who also advises the delegation, argued that a Syrian-Israeli treaty would undercut President Hafez Assad's ambitions to emerge as the preeminent leader of the Arab world and the shaper of its future.
"To say 'me first'--that's what the Israelis want--would reduce Hafez Assad to just another pussycat," the adviser said, playing on Assad's family name, which means "lion." "I can see the cartoons already; the ridicule would be tremendous, the slogans on the walls would kill him."
Also presently at stake is the U.S. role as mediator. The Palestinians perceive the Clinton Administration, notably Christopher, as not yet up to dealing with Israel and consequently not able to become a "full partner" in the talks.
While giving Christopher high marks for his seriousness and his personal commitment to human rights, Palestinian negotiators say that, unless he can make the agreements he reaches with the Israelis stick, he will lose all influence in the Arab world. Christopher, they added, has yet to reply to a Palestinian letter, sent Feb. 28, on how to resolve the present impasse.
"Baker would never have left all these loose ends," one negotiator said, comparing Christopher with his predecessor, James A. Baker III, who brought the Israelis and Arabs together in October, 1991, in an effort to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict. "If the Clinton Administration wants to keep us on board, they will have to work as hard as Baker did."