I WAS WRONG. In fact, I was wrong for the wrong reasons. Of course, I am so modest and unassuming about my analyses of the world that I am willing to admit my embarrassment. You see, for those of us who started covering the Middle East many years ago -- I went there first as a foreign correspondent in 1969 -- the summers of our hope had run out by the time everybody went to Madrid this fall. It would be just another disappointment.
Oh sure, the Israelis and the Palestinians were going to sit down together for the first time. Oh yes, the Syrians were coming, and maybe even the Saudis. But we "old-timers" in the region had seen exalted spirits before -- in fact, we had seen everything before, and right there you had the problem.
Because when the Arabs and Israelis went to Madrid on Oct. 31, with Jim Baker, midwife extraordinaire, on hand, a birth did take place. The baby is awfully tiny, it is true, but she is already exhibiting exactly those traits we cynics had so long been hoping for.
The Palestinians are the main change. Those of us who over the years simply thought the Palestinians deserved an equal break with everybody else had about given up on them. We knew there were extraordinary Palestinian intellectuals and business people, but the official governing PLO "movement" had come down to radical caterwauling and too many corrupt relics. They would never change.
Madrid -- where the Palestinians, after defeat after defeat by the Israelis, finally had become chagrined enough to trot out their best people -- showed how much they have changed.
But there were still suspicions in many minds that the moderate, compromising, even elegant look of the Palestinian delegation in Madrid was only more Middle-Eastern make-believe and mirage. A meeting in Washington this week -- sponsored by the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, an educational program of the Jerusalem Fund -- put the cap on such doubts.
First, Sari Nusseibeh got up. A young Palestinian professor, he was on the Madrid delegation. Nusseibeh carefully analyzed the situation with the kind of measured words that have not been heard before in professional "Palestinianism."
"The issues of contention now are land and water," he ticked off, coolly, talking about what comes next. "The Palestinians want an interim government based on Palestinian law -- the Israelis are going to contend it should be under the Ministry of Defense, with laws derived from the Israeli military government and the Knesset.
"The Palestinians are going to argue that you can't have an interim government unless it has legal basis. The Jerusalem issue will be deferred. There has been talk about joint ventures with the Israelis, talk about re-creating the Jerusalem March of Palestinians and Israeli moderates . . . that would be in the next two weeks . . . one of our major concerns should be to influence Israeli public opinion."
When the official PLO "voice" at the meeting got up, it was all histrionic rhetoric. His talk was not so much of steps toward peace but of the "resurrection" of Palestine and the "victimization" of the Palestinians over the generations. It was the rhetoric of the radical liberation movements that took over the Third World in the decolonization after World War II.
It was not only tiresome and repetitive, but also clearly out of sync, particularly so with this very pro-Palestinian group. Most were barely polite; some yawned, and some just looked away in embarrassment. Everybody seemed more comfortable when the scholarly political scientist Muhammad Hallaj spelled out ways in which the Palestinian movement has changed. It has accepted, among other things, diplomacy as a means of achieving its goals, the land-for-peace formula, a phased approach to self-determination and the idea of a future confederation with Jordan.
So, what many of us have wondered for so many years -- peace with justice for all peoples in the Middle East -- may, just may, finally be attainable. Certainly the evidence of our eyes and intellects is that the Palestinian movement, as with so many movements in this post-Cold War world, is passing from the hot hands of histrionic fanatics to the cool reach of sensible realists.
And, yes, I was wrong for the very human reasons of exhaustion, hopelessness and learned cynicism. For once, I'm very glad I was wrong.