Secretary of State Warren Christopher has rightly hailed the historic Israeli-PLO agreement on self-rule as a “conceptual breakthrough” and offered strong U.S. support for it. Similar backing must now be enlisted from other states, in the Middle East and beyond, for the more international encouragement there is for this agreement, the greater its chances for success.
But caution remains in order. A concept, even one that so dramatically seems to transcend decades of hostility and political immobility, is a long way from practical reality. Israel and the organization that for nearly 20 years has claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people--a claim now bitterly challenged by some Palestinians--have taken the first tangible steps on a long and hazardous journey. Many are the forces that will seek to prevent them from reaching that goal.
NEW THREATS: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is trying to mobilize the backing of Arab governments, even as demonstrations denouncing the agreement as a sellout sweep Gaza and parts of the West Bank. That charge echoes in Israel as well, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his coalition government find themselves accused of everything from inexcusable misjudgment to high treason. Palestinian radicals have threatened Arafat’s life. Israeli extremists threaten armed resistance if Rabin’s government proceeds with the exchange of land for peace that it promised to try to achieve when it was elected 14 months ago.
NEW DETAILS: The next few weeks are expected to produce the all-important details of how Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho will work and what it could lead to elsewhere in the West Bank. Unclear at the moment is whether those details will be hammered out in the Washington peace talks or, as was the breakthrough agreement, in secret back-channel contacts between Israel and the PLO. Both sides seem eager to get the Gaza-Jericho arrangement in place as soon as possible. How that arrangement works--including especially how it impinges on Israel’s security--will be crucial in determining the scope and pace with which autonomy for Palestinians proceeds.
Realism requires noting carefully the pitfalls ahead as Israelis and Palestinians--no doubt with timely U.S. proposals to bridge their differences--struggle to resolve their conflict. But, as we said Monday, realism also demands that the events of the last few weeks be appreciated for what they are. A historic change has taken place, and there is reason to hope the world will be better because of it.