A Shining Moment

September 12, 1993

In one of the great turning points of the Twentieth Century, the leader of the Palestinian people has recognized "the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security" and the prime minister of Israel, in turn, has recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as "the representative of the Palestinian people." If this isn't peace in the Holy Land -- and it is not -- it is still an inspiring reach toward this worthy goal.

Tomorrow, barring the ever-present threat of disruption by the enemies of reconciliation, high-ranking representatives of Israel and the PLO will meet at the White House to sign a historic accord granting limited self-rule to Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho. It could be the first step toward the creation of a Palestinian state, an objective as important to the Palestinians as Israel is to the Jews.

In President Clinton's words, this is indeed "a shining moment of hope," one that occurs just before the High Holy Days of Judaism and just 20 years after the last, coordinated and ultimately defeated Arab attempt to crush the state of Israel by force. "You ask me what I wish; my answer is a national existence. . .[in] the Land of Promise," wrote Benjamin Disraeli as the Zionist idea began to take hold in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

It took centuries of bare Jewish survival in the Holy Land itself plus the tumultuous events of this century -- especially, the huge Jewish migrations to Israel as a result of German, Soviet and Arab oppression -- to create a "national existence." Now Israel is more secure but by no means fully secure.

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Enormous courage and the juxtaposition of convincing circumstance were required to bring the present leadership of Israel and the PLO to this point. Both leaderships face intense opposition, perhaps even civil war, from within their own ranks. Both will be engaged in long negotiations as they try to learn to live not as tightly sealed-off neighbors but as peoples deeply intertwined.

There is a danger that the PLO's renunciation of its most cherished doctrines -- the destruction of Israel and armed struggle for a homeland -- is very much a desperate grasp for personal survival on the part of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. He has been in a perilous shape -- his petrodollar supply all but dried up, his standing among his people eroding with the rise of the Hamas extremists and his chances for great achievement waning with the passage of years. He had to give up much more than did Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- so much so that his letter recognizing Israel has been described as a document of surrender.

With so much riding on Mr. Arafat's survival, even the Israeli secret service will be cooperating with PLO security to protect him. But he will need outside help -- large infusions of aid money from the West to combat slum conditions in Gaza and support from such Arab power brokers as Syria's Hafez al-Assad, Jordan's King Hussein, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.

The United States, which has refused official contact with the PLO since 1990, is now finding its conditions met for an about face. Soon, perhaps very soon, there could be an Arafat visit to this country. But the PLO leader faces many enemies not only within his organization and among more extremist Palestinian organizations but from outside elements still dedicated to the destruction of a Jewish state within the Islamic heartland.

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Mr. Rabin's Labor government is entitled to great credit for securing the PLO's acknowledgment of Israel's right "to exist in peace and security." But there will be neither peace nor security if intransigents among the Palestinians continue the intifada uprising, which Mr. Arafat renounced in everything but name, or if Syria, Jordan and Lebanon do not make peace and extend recognition.

Early hopes for quick peace accords with these three immediate neighbors of Israel have not come to pass. So Mr. Rabin also faces a two-front struggle -- one with fellow Jews who accuse him of giving away the patrimony of his people in a greater Israel and the other in dealing with Palestinians of varying ideology as he works out the modalities of self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. Recognition of a Palestinian state is still a distant possibility, as difficult for Jews as the acceptance of Israel is for Palestinians.

If the best promise of this "shining moment" comes to pass, the diplomacy of the Middle East will be transformed. U.S. diplomacy in Muslim nations will no longer be hobbled by U.S. friendship with Israel. Arab governments besieged by poverty, and the instability it creates, will have less need to spend their resources on armaments. Tensions between the West and the Islamic world could ease. And Jews and Arabs could blend their entrepreneurial talents to develop and protect a land holy to three great religions. Disraeli's wish could indeed come true in a far more ambitious context than he ever imagined.

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