Give Mideast Process a Chance

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's lengthy meeting with President Clinton at the White House appears to have brought American-Israeli relations back to their more or less traditional level of cordiality and close agreement on broad principles, though perhaps at the cost of weakening U.S. influence with the Palestinian participants in the Middle East peace talks.

Such at least is the complaint now coming from the Palestinian camp, which makes no secret of its frustration over Clinton's failure to pressure Rabin in the matter of the Palestinians deported to Lebanon last December. That frustration is understandable, not only because the Palestinians believe the expulsions were a gross injustice but also because they have tied their return to the negotiating arena next month to an Israeli back-down on this issue.

But Palestinian professions of dismay over Clinton's silence on the expellees are also a bit disingenuous. The Palestinians were clearly told that the concessions Secretary of State Warren Christopher got from Rabin last month--to readmit about 100 of the expellees right away and bring the rest back before the end of the year--were the limits of what could be done now. It was never in the cards that Clinton would try to achieve more than his envoy did.

There is another consideration here as well. The Palestinians thrust into Lebanon were activists in or supporters of Hamas, the Iran-financed militant Islamic movement whose political program calls quite explicitly for Israel's extermination. This fact does not encourage American compassion for Hamas' adherents. It is similarly a fact that the World Trade Center bombing, with its alleged links to Islamic extremists, helps bolster sympathy for what Israel daily confronts.

The December deportations were, as we have said before, the wrong way to handle an undoubted security problem. But the long, rancorous history of Arab-Israel relations has seen an abundance of wrongs, injustices and outrages, all of which are remembered but none of which should be allowed now to serve as the excuse for sabotaging the best chance for political progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict to emerge in the last 13 years. If this chance is missed the anti-peace radicals will have won a very big, maybe even a decisive, round.

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