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Verging on a Handshake

WITH the measured go-ahead of Syria and Jordan, a historic rapprochement between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization is nearer. There are many questions to be answered on both sides. But it appears the PLO and Israel will recognize each other on Sept. 13. If the details can be agreed on, recognition would lead to a process of limited autonomy for Palestinians in Gaza and the 10,000 citizens of Jericho in the West Bank. Every effort must be made to help make the process a just one.

A significant incentive in the deal is the promise of aid to the territories from the international community. Given the desperate conditions in Gaza and the occupied territories' unprecedented six months of closure, the idea of money, work, and a partial lifting of the Israeli police presence surely appeals to many Palestinians. Any just solution in the region will require a careful rebuilding in the occupied territories.

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This latest phase of the peace process has lasted 22 months and has been through many twists and turns. In recent weeks it has been completely reinvented, as the substance of a secret ``Gaza-Jericho first'' deal between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli government came to light. The secret talks circumvented the agreement among Arab states in the peace process that no party would cut a separate deal. But the tacit agreement of Syria and Jordan now allows the process to keep moving.

In many ways, it is still just beginning. The Aug. 31 approval of the Israeli Cabinet was crucial in moving Gaza-Jericho and PLO recognition forward. Recognizing a group the Israelis have loathed, a sworn enemy, could be risky. The Israeli public, not to mention 5,000 settlers in Gaza, must be reassured. The Likud Party is attacking President Yitzhak Rabin's Labor government. But Mr. Rabin, concerned about increased violence in the territories and the rise of Hamas fundamentalists, has decided it is time to give the PLO the chance to help govern Gaza. A PLO deal also allows the Israelis to vigorously pursue talks with Syria and Jordan.

Palestinians are in a tougher spot. A deal may fill the PLO's empty coffers, give Palestinians recognition, and improve what they feel is an unfair demonization in the West. It may help in the territories. But it may hurt if crucial details are ignored. The stakes Mr. Arafat raised without consulting Palestinians are enormous: A failure could destroy them. Arafat has no authority in Gaza, although he must soon help police Gaza. So far Palestinians have not been offered sovereignty. Nor is the issue of water and land clear. If Palestinians want to dig a well for water, can they? Can they call the place they live their land? These questions are basic and need answers.

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