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Middle East Optimism

OPTIMISM comes hard to the Middle East peace process. The differences between parties to the talks are deep; they won't quickly be resolved. But the last few days have given some hints that a workable peace may be within grasp.

The newly installed government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wasted no time in putting a freeze, as promised, on new settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza, pending completion of a policy review. That's a welcome first step. It hastens the resumption of the formal peace talks begun last year in Madrid.

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Palestinian leaders meeting with US Secretary of State James Baker in Jerusalem voiced a readiness to return to the negotiating table and to be flexible in their response to US loan guarantees for Israel.

Their optimism, however, is guarded. Mr. Rabin is seen as a much better partner in peacemaking than former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but the new Israeli leader's distinction between "political" and "security" settlements arouses skepticism.

Part of Rabin's immediate task is to dispel such skepticism, not just in the minds of Palestinians, but of Americans also. Mr. Baker made it clear that the US wants to unfreeze the billions of dollars in loan guarantees put on hold last year because of disagreement over Mr. Shamir's settlement policy. The money made available through the guarantees would help house recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Political pressures are building in Congress to act on the guarantees, but the US government must first get a stronger statement from Rabin affirming that the freeze on settlement building will remain in place as peace negotiations proceed. The "security" versus "political" issue will have to be clarified, too - though that may come later in the context of negotiating the broader issue of Israeli security guarantees.

Rabin's July 21 meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, together with Mr. Mubarak's planned visit to Israel, are other hopeful signs. Mubarak kept his distance from the former Israeli government. Rabin's commitment to "land for peace," though ill-defined as yet, opens the door to greater involvement by peace-minded Arab governments like Egypt's.

Not everyone in the Middle East is peace-minded, of course. Islamic fundamentalists in Jordan and elsewhere are trying to whip up opposition to the peace process. Nationalist extremists in Israel are equally prone to conflict.

But the current convergence of interests in peace - from Israel, the Palestinian leadership, Egypt, other Arab states, and the US - has the potential of silencing the region's warmongers.

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