Progress on the Gaza Border

February 17, 1995

The U.S. has returned to a central role in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. In August 1993 the two Middle East antagonists achieved a breakthrough accommodation, with Norwegian mediation but without U.S. help. The relatively productive meeting of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday, ending a stalemate, followed a vigorous U.S. mediation in Washington at a lower level last weekend.

President Clinton as well as Secretary of State Warren Christopher pressed the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the PLO -- and in private the latter two -- to move forward. That greased the way for Mr. Rabin to assure Mr. Arafat he will begin allowing 15,000 Palestinian workers back into Israel next week. Some 60,000 regularly crossed the border to work before Mr. Rabin sealed the borders in response to terrorism on Jan. 22.

For his part, Mr. Arafat named five judges to a military court to try suspected terrorists in Gaza or Jericho, and rounded up a few followers of Islamic Jihad, the group claiming credit for the Jan. 22 suicide bombing that killed 21 Israelis.

Mr. Rabin offered to let Mr. Arafat begin administration of the town of Jenin, without Israeli troops pulling out first. This is not what the PLO wants but is something to talk about and perhaps as good a way as any to begin expansion of the territory under Mr. Arafat's authority. So far, the offer is not accepted.

This is not some great leap forward, but it is a return to some progress after the angry impasse at the two leaders' last meeting a week earlier. It suggests that friends of the peace process do have a role in mediation. Among them, the United States uniquely has the influence with both sides to push them where they know they must go.

For Israel this means implementation of previous agreements to withdraw troops so that Mr. Arafat can administer the West Bank and hold Palestinian elections. For the PLO, this means halting terrorism against Israel that is financed, planned or agitated in Palestinian-governed territory. Delay is reducing public support for the peace process among both Israelis and Palestinians. Only quicker achievement of the benefits of peace will turn that around.

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