Israel-PLO peace nearer Facts on the ground: Distrust remains but troops withdraw, airport opens, talks resume.

November 22, 1998

FITFULLY, the peace initiative between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization has regained momentum.

Israeli troops have begun withdrawals. Prisoners have been released. Gaza International Airport was to open today. Negotiations on final status of territory, which will likely include Palestinian statehood, have resumed in good faith -- however impossible the May 4 deadline appears. But Israelis still distrust the intentions of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and Palestinians equally suspect the worst of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Israel, the charismatic opponents of the previous government's peace process, Mr. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, are leading its implementation. In Palestinian territory, people who despaired of ever seeing benefits from the peace accords are now witnessing their lands expand and their sons return.

The Clinton administration deserves much credit for all this. Its pressure on Mr. Netanyahu's government to make accommodations is vindicated.

Israel's Cabinet is moving forward without enthusiasm. It is deeply split. The strain is testing Mr. Netanyahu's almost mystical ability to hold his coalition together. More than 70 percent of the Israeli public backs the peace accords, though, in a country where so many rarely agree about anything. Israel's leaders had better be committed to making this peace work. The people want peace and security and most of them understand that the two go together.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Mr. Arafat's good faith in preventing terrorism and achieving permanent coexistence with Israel is challenged anew. Terrorists and extremists want to wreck this peace process.

But the momentum is there. And with it, enemies are forced to cooperate, interests are shared and economies begin to interact, each needing the other's prosperity. Peace is by no means achieved. But the Oslo accord is back on track.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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