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Yitzhak Rabin's Terrible Decision

IN mid-December, with no more than a few hours for reflection, one man made a decision that seems to be bringing the Middle East closer to the brink of political collapse and war.

The man is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The decision, later backed by the Cabinet, was to summarily expel 400 plus Palestinians accused (but not tried for) supporting Islamic activism.

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Various contexts exist for this decision. The immediate one, in Israel, was the brutal killing of a member of the country's Border Police, presumably by Islamic militants. Some of the Cabinet members who voted for the decree explained that they felt they had to do so under pressure from right-wing parties.

The context of the move in international terms is that all members of the international community (except Israel) agree the Geneva convention for the protection of civilians in time of war applies to the West Bank and Gaza. That convention expressly forbids expulsion of members of a population.

For the Palestinians, the expulsions came at a low point in their negotiations with Israel. Back in October 1991, the Palestinians entered the negotiations under conditions they found politically humiliating. They did so hoping that their 44 year-old conflict with Israel might at last be put on the road to resolution. But since then they have seen only a continued worsening of life under military occupation.

News of the expulsions burst into this Palestinian tinderbox like a cluster-bomb, igniting waves of new Islamic anger.

Now, the organization to which the Palestinian team members affirm their allegiance, the PLO, is hurrying to see if it can salvage a deal with the fundamentalists before they take over everything.

With every day that the 400 Palestinians sit on the hillside in Lebanon, the fundamentalists gain new ground - not just in Palestinian politics, but in every country where they have struck roots in past decades. That includes here, in Cairo, where the Islamic media dwell on two stories: the expellees, and latest horrors against Muslims in Bosnia.

In Bosnia and the occupied territories, concepts of international law are taking a terrible beating. In both situations, Muslims see their kin taking an undue share of the suffering. They see a Western world that - to many Muslims - seems unwilling to help enforce made-in-the-West concepts of international law in order to save them.

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(In Somalia, by contrast, most of the suffering by Muslims was at the hands of fellow Muslims. Many Somalis view the United States as their savior. Let's hope that present disputes there are contained, and a new political order found, before the conflict draws in more American forces.)

Ever since the Iran hostage crisis, there has been a dangerous tendency in American popular culture to denigrate Middle Eastern Muslims and downplay their suffering. Just imagine the reaction of Americans if Christians or Jews were going through such pain. Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of devout Muslims, like those who fill the streets here in Cairo at Friday prayer-time, are not fanatics or terrorists. But the fact is, fanatics grow much stronger when the international community seems obli vious to Muslims in need.

Can the fragile structure of the Middle East peace talks survive the present crisis?

It was sad to see a party to the negotiations (Israel) taking a step that not only flouted international law but also played right into the hands of the opponents of the peace process.

We cannot expect that, on its own, the Israeli government can dig itself out of the hole it is currently in. It is probably time for the US government, the main sponsor of the process, to intervene with a plan to push the negotiations forward. Fast. The need to disengage the Israeli forces from the Palestinian populace has never been more pressing. Giving the Palestinian negotiators a deal that they can sell to their neighbors is now the only way forward.

If the current Arab-Israeli peace talks fail, fanatics on both sides will emerge victorious. It won't be a happy day for those Israelis or Arab citizens that will be affected.

There may or may not be things the new administration can do in Bosnia. But with its leverage, there are many things it can do to save the Arab-Israeli peace.

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