Mideast peace process is back on its track

Hope restored: Signing restarts momentum, though great obstacles must still be overcom

September 08, 1999

THE ACCORD signed Sunday by Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat did not bring peace. Rather, it restored the momentum that had been interrupted by Benjamin Netanyahu's three years as prime minister.

All the hopes of 1995 for cooperation between Israel and the Arab world -- for prosperity based on peace -- are revived.

The notion of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians as partners is believable again. But this time there is less giddiness and more restraint to the optimism.

The promise of opening the highway from Gaza through Israel to the West Bank, and of starting a port for Gaza, should boost development this year.

The accord, signed at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, prompted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Damascus and Beirut. Although Mrs. Albright was stonewalled by Syrian President Hafez el Assad on preconditions, U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and Syria are possible.

Not surprisingly, the accord provoked terrorism. Three Israeli Arabs blew themselves up while moving two car bombs in Tiberias and Haifa. Possibly related was the failed attack on the mediator, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, by a deranged Egyptian. Israeli and Palestinian security forces are now credibly cooperating against the common threat.

And although Israel's justice system is known for independence, its Supreme Court decision Monday forbidding physical mistreatment of prisoners by security forces is fortuitous.

The ruling addresses one of the most emotional grievances of Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans.

Israel will not let its guard down, as its air attack yesterday, at a guerrilla base in Lebanon, showed. But Israel is also sending out feelers to Arab states about restarting regional talks on issues such as tourism and desalinization.

The age and frailty of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Assad encourage hope. Each may want to leave a positive legacy, and hasn't much time.

Mr. Barak, for his part, is a security hawk who understands the minority of Israelis who oppose his peace efforts.

The timetable for agreeing on "final" status within a year -- possibly by postponing the most intractable issues -- seems ambitious. But the momentum is back.

Instead of every setback provoking another setback, every advance enlarges the possibilities.

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