Rabin's Razor-Thin Edge : His peace bid has support, but the figures demand that he tread carefully

Although he wasn't required to do so, Prime Minister Yitz- hak Rabin chose to submit to Israel's parliament the West Bank autonomy agreement that greatly expands the area for Palestinian self-rule, and he said he would regard the vote as a test of confidence in his coalition government. After 15 hours of emotional and often raucous debate, Rabin won the Knesset's approval for his Palestinian policy, though barely.

The 61-59 vote comes very close to reflecting what opinion polls indicate is the public mood about the continuing peace process. Israelis support the steps their government has been taking, but so narrowly as to raise questions about the government's freedom of action when talks on a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement begin next May.

For nearly all Israelis the most compelling issue is security. As their army pulls back from the major population centers of the West Bank and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority extends its rule, will Israelis be less safe in their own land, not just from isolated terrorist outrages but, giving up strategic depth, from military attack as well?

The new peace treaty with neighboring Jordan should go far to allay the second part of that concern. But against the threat of terrorism there are no guarantees, neither now nor in the future. Indeed, given the determination of Islamic extremists to prevent an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it's a certainty that terrorism will go on in any event.

The pace and scope of future progress will be determined to a perhaps conclusive extent by what happens over the next six months or so. Arafat must prove that the regime he presides over can in fact govern in those parts of the West Bank where it will soon hold sway. And Rabin's government must show that it can prevent Israeli opponents of the peace process--especially the most militant of the 140,000 settlers on the West Bank--from taking actions that would sabotage its efforts to disengage. If either leader fails, then almost certainly so will the peace process, and that would be an enduring calamity for both peoples.

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