BOSTON — Seldom in the dead reckoning of nations is it that a country o its own free will decides on a 180-degree course correction, especially if it means giving up something considered to be of vital national interest.
Thirty years ago, Charles De Gaulle captained such a change. Coming to power as the hawkish darling of French settlers in the rebellion-torn province of Algeria, De Gaulle saw that the struggle to keep Algeria as a de jure part of metropolitan France was tearing his nation apart. He had both the will and the national stature to wrench his country away from a colonial mentality it had held for 150 years.
The course that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has charted for Israel is another one of history's abrupt turns. Last June, the Israeli electorate turned its back on the previous government's preoccupation with a Greater Israel at the expense of the Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories and voted for the party that advocates territorial compromise for peace.
But Mr. Rabin has surprised even some of his supporters by the determination he has brought to the peace process -- a determination to succeed where his predecessor, by his own admission, was only stalling.
''At this moment, Rabin is the king of Israel,'' said Yossi Olmert, head of the government press office in the previous administration. ''He has the time and space to do almost anything he likes.''
What he would like is to make peace with his neighbors as quickly as possible: to Egyptianize Syria, the Palestinians, Jordan and Lebanon before the balance of power, now overwhelmingly in Israel's favor, swings back again. With the Soviet Union gone and out of the arms-supplying game, with the gulf war having pulled Saddam Hussein's teeth, Israel is incontestably the strongest power in the Middle East.
In addition, a moderate Palestinian leadership faction has developed and is ready to negotiate on the West Bank. But in the future, Mr. Rabin knows that forces may build to change this equation. Iran may soon have an atomic bomb. Islamic fundamentalism on the West Bank and elsewhere may threaten to take power, as is happening in Algeria. Better to make peace now, as Menachem Begin did with Egypt, for the greater and longer-lasting security of Israel.
This is bold stuff. The parallel with Algeria has its limits. There is no Mediterranean between the West Bank, Syria and Israel. But Mr. Rabin is showing the same -- and initiative for peace that Israel's armies have so often shown in war. Opportunities such as this do not remain open forever.
Those of us who were often critical of the previous government's intransigence -- and this would include the U.S. government -- should support Israel's initiatives to the hilt and urge upon the Arabs the same spirit of compromise. As Mr. Rabin put it: ''You will not get everything you want. Neither will we.''
The most favorable response so far has come from Damascus, and today Israel and Syria are close to a land-for-peace agreement over the Golan Heights. It is an area from which longtime Rabin watchers never thought he would budge.
There are still obstacles. Syria wants a commitment from Israel to give up all the occupied territory, and Israel wants Syria to spell out the meaning of peace. Israel wants the Golan to be decoupled from negotiations over other lands, while Syria wants it to be part of a comprehensive agreement.
But these positions are not unbridgeable. There might yet evolve a Hong Kong solution, whereby Syria would take back sovereignty over the Golan while allowing Israel to remain for a number of years. The United States has offered to station peace-keepers on the Golan, which might satisfy both the sovereignty issue for Syria and the security issue for Israel.
Nothing will come easily. Negotiations with the Palestinians will be especially difficult because, unlike Syria or Jordan, the Palestinians do not constitute a sovereign country, and the lines of authority and decision-making are not always clear or agreed upon.
Peace may not yet be at hand, but the prospects have seldom looked better.
H.D.S. Greenway is senior associate editor of the Boston Globe.