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A Wrong Move

THE cynical response to recent events in the Middle East is that the extremists have won. Militants of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements in Gaza and the West Bank killed a half dozen Israeli soldiers, including a border policeman who was abducted and brutally murdered. They provoked a sweeping reaction from Israel's government, which organized a mass deportation of 415 Palestinians with connections to the two Islamic groups.

It was a move made to order for radicals on all sides of the region's conflict. The goal of Hamas is to thwart the current peace process and get on with holy war against Israel. At this juncture, it appears the militants have caused a chain of events that could indeed shatter fragile peace negotiations.

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The Israeli expulsion order has rallied Palestinians of all political stripes. Hamas and moderate elements within the Palestine Liberation Organization, which have backed the peace process, had been harshly at odds over the best way to deal with Israel. Now they are issuing joint communiques in support of the deportees stranded in south Lebanon.

Within Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin finds members of the right-wing Tsomet party supportive of the expulsion and newly ready to consider a role in his coalition. Many left-wing Meretz bloc members, already within Mr. Rabin's coalition, oppose the expulsion tactic. Polls show that 9 out of 10 Israelis support the prime minister's decision.

That public backing is one reason Rabin is not likely to back down, though the Israeli Supreme Court could order a reversal of the expulsion.

Another reason is his firm belief in tough responses to attacks such as those on Israeli soldiers and policemen. He is counting on a quick ebbing of international criticism of the mass deportation and on a PLO recognition that any move against Hamas helps moderate factions.

The problems with this calculation are: (1) that the scale of the expulsion makes it likely to remain a cause cbre, and (2) that no Palestinian group, no matter how opposed to the doctrines of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, can afford to be seen taking advantage of this Israeli move.

Rabin overplayed his hand in this case. He may be right that world reaction is more strident against Israel in the present case than it was against actions like Kuwait's expulsion of thousands of Palestinians. But the critical stake is the peace process. That process would be better served by Israeli measures that work through the country's legal system, rather than an action that affronts international law.

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