ISRAEL entered the peace talks in Madrid last October with low expectations. As a result, the very modest results achieved thus far have pleased the Israelis and whetted that nation's appetite for what might follow.
Israel is serious about negotiating a peace settlement with the Arab Palestinians and the Arab states, even though its terms for a settlement are tough. In the face of the murder by Arab Palestinians of four Israeli civilians in several ambush incidents, the Israeli government has reacted with measured steps that conveyed the simple message that the Palestinian leadership cannot negotiate the terms of a settlement with Israel while its constituents murder Israelis.
Deportation of 12 Palestinians, which was Israel's response to these murders, and the howl of Arab and American protest, captured headlines last week, while Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's condemnation of vigilante activities against Palestinians went unreported abroad.
Speaking to a right-wing audience of veterans of the LEHI (Stern Gang) and the Etzel (Irgun), themselves former freedom fighters or terrorists depending on your point of view, Mr. Shamir declared that Jewish vigilantism against West Bank Arabs had no justification and served no useful purpose. It took political courage to make that statement in the presence of the vigilantes' natural constituents.
Yet, Shamir has more to do if he wishes to maintain the moral high ground during the peace talks. In addition to the perils of vigilantism, he must confront the danger of radical activity acting under the cover of the law.
The eviction of Arab families in the middle of the night of Dec. 8 in the all Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, and the possession of their houses by Jewish settlers acting with the sanction of the Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, may have been within the law, but such an action strikes hard at the notion that Israel intends to treat Palestinians fairly.
Though neither side believes that it has to prove its sincerity to the other, the fears of each are so deep and raw that the mischief of vigilantes and radicals are an ever-present danger. How each side prevents and punishes vigilantism and radical provocation will be an important test of its reliability.
There is no peace euphoria in Israel. But there is a growing realization that the Land of Israel can accommodate a strong, secure State of Israel and a demilitarized Arab Palestinian national entity.
An indicator of this change came when Ze'ev Chafets, a highly regarded journalist who headed the press office in the Begin government, announced his support for a Palestinian state in a signed article in The Jerusalem Report. After years of close attention to statements from Palestinians, he believes they are ready to accept Israel's existence. Mr. Chafets isn't just rolling over for Arab rhetoric, he wants to be sure "the Palestinians are willing to give up the politics of grievance and see Israel not a s a necessary evil, but as a morally legitimate neighbor."
SHAMIR'S Likud government is far from taking Chafets's bold step. But, like all past Israeli governments, it wants the Arab states and the PLO to recognize Israel's legitimacy.
When Shamir and his delegation found themselves at a table across from Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians, their commitment to exclusive territorial control was placed in the new context of the possibility of achieving an honorable peace at a fair price.
A fair price might be the Palestinians' commitment to a state whose dimensions and structure were completely compatible with Israeli security, including demilitarization monitored by regular, unannounced on-site inspections, an open border with Israel, and the presence of a multinational force to act as a trip wire along the Jordan River.
Walid Khalidi, the preeminent Arab Palestinian spokesman in the United States and a man careful in his use of language, set forth such a proposal this autumn in the authoritative Journal of Palestine Studies.
Israel and the Palestinians would gain the most from a settlement, and the greatest burdens are on their shoulders.
The Palestinian delegation must become the master of its own house, withstanding the pressure of PLO rejectionists and resisting the Syrians whose agenda calls for the imposition of their agenda on Palestinian aspirations.
If this happens, then it will be up to the Israeli government to judge the true extent of its strength, and the true stature of its adversaries, thinking through the long-term consequences of attempting to rule in perpetuity over a large, growing, and hostile minority population. Finally the government must place the national interest ahead of its desire to stay in office.
Peace could come to the Land of Israel in 1992.