Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's bold call for stepped-up peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is what the world wanted to hear, and what the majority of Israelis voted for on June 23. It was vigorous and purposeful, yet tough.
The old general will retain the defense portfolio in his cabinet, taking personal responsibility for the security of the Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, even while restricting new settlements to areas he deems strategic, such as the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley and outskirts of Jerusalem. He gave foreign affairs to his old Labor Party rival, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, yet retained peace negotiations for himself.
Mr. Rabin put Israel's security in a new, global light: "We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and cooperation that is spreading over the entire globe these days -- lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station." The break from the Shamir government's intransigence-for-its-own-sake was dramatic.
Mr. Rabin's invitation to Arab neighbors to address the Knesset and his own offer to visit their capitals was routine by every incoming Israeli prime minister. But in the context of his speech to the Knesset, it was credible and powerful.
Mr. Rabin heads a cabinet that is more dovish than he is. Hence his holding two seats open in hopes of getting aboard more parties from the religious right to balance the peacenik Meretz Alliance's three cabinet seats, with which he may not be comfortable.
Nothing he said guarantees a peace agreement. His security-based territorial notions, while more conciliatory than Mr. Shamir's, fall far short of minimum Palestinian expectations. His concept of autonomy needs to be explored. That is what negotiations are for. His warnings against Arab acquisition of nuclear weapons are serious and must give Arab arms procurers pause.
Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians should waste no time coming to grips with Mr. Rabin's negotiating postion, with calling his bluff if that's what they think it is. For Mr. Shamir's former intransigence was not the only obstacle to an Arab-Israel accommodation. The intentions of Syria's dictator Hafez el Assad are ambiguous at best. Mr. Rabin is putting him on the spot, which Mr. Shamir failed to do. The Palestinians are being offered some kind of autonomy very quickly, and they are clear that any kind is preferable to Israel's occupying authority. Mr. Rabin is in a strong position domestically to make concessions, because his commitment to Israel's security is unquestioned.
Arab negotiators were waiting months for this moment. Now it is their turn.