Letdown on Mideast Peace

March 18, 1994

Hopes had been built up that Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would bring concrete concessions on Palestinian security to President Clinton on Wednesday. They were --ed when Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rabin, in their joint press conference, had nothing concrete to say.

Both leaders made all the right noises in a general way on the need to restart the peace process between Israel and the PLO, and to negotiate a peace between Israel and Syria by year's end. But they could describe no gesture by Israel, in the wake of the Feb. 25 mass murder of Palestinians in Hebron by an Israeli, to entice PLO chairman Yasser Arafat back into dialogue.

If anything positive came of the visit -- and it might have -- it would have been in the form of secret messages from Israel to be passed on to the PLO. Unofficial reports from Tunis yesterday were optimistic on that score. The fairly moderate reaction of Mr. Arafat to the public statements was that the PLO needs assurance of international protection of Palestinians. The proposed United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the massacre and some ideas from Israel that have not been made public could amount to that.

The April 13 deadline to complete Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho is almost certainly going to be missed. That could cast a pall on proceedings and weaken Mr. Arafat's hold on Palestinian loyalties against the appeal of the extremist Hamas organization.

However, what Mr. Arafat first demanded -- dismantling of all Israeli settlements -- he should not get. The Washington agreement of Sept. 13 put that question off for three years. That declaration is the blueprint for progress and not a subject for renegotiation.

But Israel must be seen to protect Palestinians as well as Israelis. In that, Israel signally failed when the American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein committed his atrocity. To express remorse is not sufficient. Now two soldiers have testified to the Israeli inquiry, confirming Palestinian accounts, that they in confusion had fired at Palestinians and that Dr. Goldstein had an accomplice.

More arrests of Israeli extremists would be one appropriate Israeli gesture now. So would the dismantling of a single settlement, the tiny Kiryat Arba, which triumphally celebrated its member's murder of 30 Palestinians. That would be a significant disincentive to further atrocities. A PLO call for Palestinian police in Hebron might be blended in a compromise with the precedent of Palestinians serving under Israeli authority.

Mr. Arafat probably wants to return to the table and complete the PLO interim regime for Gaza and Jericho. He has burned his bridges to anywhere else. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rabin made eloquent pleas for him to return, and undoubtedly know what is required to bring that about.

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