THE UNCEREMONIOUS December expulsion of 415 Palestinian supporters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad has threatened a terminal blow to the fragile edifice set in motion in Madrid in October 1991. Whatever the internal pressures on the Labour-led government, Yitzhak Rabin's choice of retaliatory action called into question not only his wisdom, but his basic commitment to any viable settlement with the Palestinians.
It was disingenuous, to say the least, of the Israeli prime minister to claim that a decisive blow to the Islamic militants would assist the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks. The contrary is likely to be true. It is Israel's failure to deliver any concrete gains to the negotiating team which has directly boosted support for Hamas' uncompromising anti-Madrid stand.
In itself, the Hamas deportation will not bring the talks to an end. Meeting Hamas representatives in Tunis at the end of December, Arafat made that perfectly clear. The PLO is afraid that abandoning the talks would simply play into the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Nevertheless, Arafat felt obliged last month to assert that Palestinian participation in negotiations would remain suspended until the deportee crisis had been resolved.
Whatever attempts may be made to accelerate negotiations, whether by Israeli inducements to the PLO or the Arab states or by outside intervention, talking will become harder, not easier. Because of the strength of feeling in the Palestinian streets - and particularly in the Occupied Territories where it matters most - the pressure will be towards violence, resistance and stepping up the intifada, rather than continuing with fruitless discussions. This presents the Palestinian peacemakers with an ever more thankless task.
Disappointment has increased support for the coalition of movements united by their opposition to the talks. The rejectionist front made its appearance in Tehran the week before the Madrid conference which launched the peace process in October 1991 with a joint statement by ten groups: the Islamist movement (led by Hamas), the Damascus-based PLO dissidents, and two groups from within the PLO - George Habbash's Popular Front (PFLP) and a faction with the Democratic Front (DFLP) which is headed by Nayef Hawatmeh. The ten reiterated their opposition in Damascus in September 1992.
The adherence of the PFLP and the DFLP to the coalition is of particular significance, since they do not oppose the negotiations in...