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Israel's New Leader

WITH Yitzhak Rabin at the helm in Israel, the path toward peace in the Middle East is clearer. Yitzhak Shamir's "not an inch" will give way to Mr. Rabin's willingness to trade some of the territory captured by Israeli forces in 1967 (under then General Rabin) for peace.

Rabin has said he will freeze the building of most Jewish settlements in that territory. This raises the possibility of more fruitful talks with the Palestinians and of better relations with the United States. The much-disputed US loan guarantees to finance immigrant housing in Israel could come off the shelf.

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When he completes the arduous task of forming a ruling coalition, Rabin will visit the US capital, where he'll be warmly welcomed by President Bush and Secretary of State Baker.

But to say that the Labor victory in Israel opened new possibilities is not to say old differences will quickly fade. The new Israeli leader brings flexibility to his job, but he may not flex as far as many would like.

It's not clear, for instance, just what Rabin's distinction between "political" settlements (which he'll stop) and "security" settlements (which he'll maintain) actually means. But his approach will almost certainly fall short of what Palestinians want. And the land-for-peace formula Rabin has in mind isn't likely to win raves in Damascus.

Still, this prime minister will be much closer to the majority of his people - who in polls have shown a willingness to compromise on territory - than Mr. Shamir was. Rabin remains, however, a tough military man who's not about to do anything that threatens Israel's safety.

But he clearly grasps that Israel's greatest security lies in solid peace agreements with its neighbors. He may well work out something with Syria whereby Israel's defense needs are met even as Damascus reclaims authority over much of the Golan. And he says he's ready to see Palestinians govern themselves, possibly in the context of Israeli cooperation and internationally sanctioned demilitarization of the territories.

The historic moment is clear: Both sides in the Middle East could finally arrive at the table ready to deal.

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