Outbreak of Realism

August 18, 1993

The talks between Israel and Palestinians that will resume in Washington at the end of the month have been strengthened by Israel's acceptance of the PLO links of the negotiators. Pretenses are dropped. Seven of the 14 members of the Palestinian delegation have been taken onto the PLO committee that directs the delegation.

This strengthens not the PLO hold on the delegation but the delegates' influence on the PLO. And according to accounts coming out of the Middle East, the new arrangement may make the delegates tougher on the Jerusalem issue than the PLO was prepared to be.

A second coming-to-grips with reality was sounded when Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke of settlers in the occupied territories as impediments to security rather than as the first line of defense. Since an accord with Syria must involve trading Golan Heights land for peace, that is an important point in Israel's domestic dialogue.

It is Israel's army that will protect Israel from any Syrian threat through the Golan, not civilians currently living there. They now constitute at best a tripwire for army action, but the need to remove them to safety in the event of hostilities would impede rather than help army response. As chief of staff during the 1967 war, Mr. Rabin speaks with authority on this matter. He is starting to educate Israelis on the settlers' true role.

A third positive note was the decision of some 395 Palestinians, languishing in no-man's land over the Lebanese border since last December, to return home to occupied territories on terms that Israel has had on offer since January. About half will return next month and will not refuse to go, as they have until now, until all do. They found they were no longer serving a useful Arab purpose.

Hezbollah guerrillas who had been feeding them are leaving the area. Syria, which had supported them, has come to terms with Israel on Lebanese border security and is approaching a decision about making peace. These Palestinians -- whom Israel had deported for allegedly encouraging murders of Israelis, without making evidence public -- remained true to their cause. That they were abandoned by Arab powers that had been cheering them on cannot surprise even them.

This is not to suggest the talks, first brokered by the Bush administration in 1991, have reached a breakthrough. Only that they have a momentum of their own, and that realism is replacing rhetoric on all sides as that momentum grows.

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