The fate of two jailed West Bank Palestinian leaders has been thrown back in the lap of Prime Minister Menachem Begin in an unusual decision by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Western diplomats once placed hopes on the two men as possible participants in any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Former mayors Muhammad Milhem of Halhul and Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron have been held in an Israeli jail for the last six weeks after being allowed to return here from Jordan to appeal their summary deportation to Lebanon last May.
While ruling 2-to-1 that the Israeli military government on the occupied West Bank had the legal authority to redeport the two men, the court recommended that the Israeli political leadership review the military's decision to do so.
It suggested that the former mayors be given a trial period to prove the declarations made in court by their lawyer that they were for Arab-Israeli coexistence and in the future would not incite against the military government or the Israeli state.
The minority court opinion argued that deportation of West Bank residents was illegal according to accepted international law, a position advanced by the US State Department but not put forward previously by the Israeli high court.
The court's decision presents Mr. Begin, in his capacity as acting defense minister, with a thorny problem. Jewish West Bank settlers and military government officials are firmly opposed to the return of the two men, deported after the murder of six Jewish soldier-students in Hebron on May 2.
The military makes no direct connection between the former mayors and the murders but blames the mayors for helping to "create the climate" behind widespread unrest in the West Bank earlier this year. As an illustration, they point to the quiet in the West Bank over the past five months, broken only by violent student demonstrations last month unrelated to the question of the mayors.
However, some well-informed Israeli analysts, including academics, journalists, and sources close to the military, have expressed belief that these men, who like all other elected West Bank public officials express public support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), could one day serve as a negotiating bridge between Israel and the PLO headquarters in Beirut.
Both men had met frequently with dovish Jewish peace groups and had stated publicly a willingness to accept Israeli and Palestinian states side by side.
Western diplomats, with whom both men also met frequently, believed them to be relative moderates. One Western diplomat stated after the court's decision, "Without strong moderate leadership on the West Bank -- like Milhem and Kawasmeh -- it would be difficult if not impossible to work out a future for the West Bank. It is in the Israelis' interest to strengthen such leadership."
Messrs. Milhem and Kawasmeh were key figures on a public, pro-PLO West Bank-wide political directorate, the National Guidance Committee, which organized opposition to the plan for West Bank-Gaza Strip self-rule, as called for in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, because it did not guarantee an independent Palestinian state.
Even before the Hebron murders, the Israeli military authorities had decided to curb the guidance committee. And to seek out leaders more amenable to self-rule.