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Trying to Script Mideast Peace

THE scenario of the Middle East peace process, so painstakingly written by Secretary of State James Baker, shows every sign of coming apart. Meanwhile, offstage hatred and violence are rising in the region. Extremists on both sides seem to have renewed their tacit alliance against a peaceful solution. The bloody attacks on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border and the threats of a rising, expanding spiral of retaliation show what may lie in store.

The West Bank and Gaza no longer have the bloody street battles of the Palestinian uprising's first years. However, a continuum of stabbing, beating, shooting, arrest, demolition, repression, and personal harassment has intensified since the peace talks began last October. Settlers have been shot and they have rampaged through Arab villages. Firearms are more in evidence among Palestinian radicals. Four so-called collaborators were shot dead in a single day last month.

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Prolonged curfews imposed by Israel that closed down cities, towns, and villages in the name of security were well-designed to stifle hope. A despondent people felt even more doomed by the frantic acceleration of settlement construction in the occupied territories, and they were enraged by the arrest of Palestinians for deportation in defiance of international protest.

In a show of determination, Israeli troops in the territories have been reinforced 20 percent, with regular Army units replacing reservists and relaxed restrictions on gunfire. The Army is now also mobilizing squads of West Bank settlers as a quick reaction force, a settlers' militia.

Onstage, in the peace talks, the chief antagonists, Israelis and Palestinians, are frozen in place disputing procedure and representation. The argument is not frivolous. Israel's refusal in Moscow to sit down with a Palestinian delegation expanded to include members from East Jerusalem and the diaspora was the reaction to the Likud government's worst nightmare: an internationally active Palestinian political entity.

The Palestinians' insistence on an expanded role responded to public opinion in the territories. Radical elements have accused the delegation of being too soft in defending Palestinian interests. Faisal Husseini, a prominent member, has been directly threatened and now has a bodyguard.

Nevertheless, in the course of the brief and essentially barren meetings thus far, something significant has happened. In Madrid and Washington, Israel has recognized the Palestinians as negotiating partners. In Moscow, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states for the first time accepted Israel in the same way. It all had little immediate effect, but it was potentially historic symbolism.

ISRAEL is not exactly leading from strength. Its economy is on the ropes. Relations with the United States have never been more strained. The centerpiece of Israeli aspirations, the absorption of a million Soviet Jews, is troubled by unemployment and poor housing. Immigration dropped by 40 percent in January, accelerating the downward trend of 1991.

Even if procedural obstacles were overcome, the Israeli-Palestinian talks on self-government would run into Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's preposterous proposition that autonomy is for the people, not for the land (and its water).

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Is peace then unattainable? Not at all. Its outlines are clear and compelling: Israel within secure and recognized boundaries, roughly pre-1967, open to trade, travel, and cultural exchange with the big, rich Arab hinterland. As for security, demilitarization and inspection of the territories in dispute can be backed up by guarantees against aggression. The large segment of the Israeli public that supports such a course could well become a majority.

The peace drama needs a deus ex machina. This must be the US, which cannot continue subsidizing an Israeli policy that it calls an obstacle to peace. Washington, however, in an election year, is reluctant to take the lead.

The revitalized United Nations could be of service. Once again, there is an active special representative of the secretary-general charged by Resolution 242 "to promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement." He is Edouard Brunner, Swiss ambassador to the US.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the new secretary-general, is adept at compromise and face-saving. With the US and others strengthening his hand, his talents and intervention might, over time, lead to a happy ending.

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