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An `Unthinkable' Peace Dawns in the Middle East

ISRAELI Premier Yitzhak Rabin's encounter today at the White House with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, at the signing of their historic understanding after 100 years of bitter conflict, will be a moment of deeply mixed emotions.

The Declaration of Principles the two leaders will endorse is sketchy, setting out the bare bones of peace, and the hardest work remains to be done to cement Israeli-Palestinian ties. (Details of the accord, Page 2.)

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But today's ceremony is the surest sign that such ties are within the bounds of possibility.

``Israel is another Israel, we are ready to change many of our ideas from the past to adapt ourselves to a new reality,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. ``The PLO is no longer the same PLO. Things can be done in the Middle East.''

Dr. Beilin's confidence extends beyond the Palestinians. There are high hopes that the momentum of today's accord will carry Israel's neighbors - Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon - to a comprehensive peace with the Jewish state. Thus, a region that long served as a cockpit for superpower rivalries, where the sparks threatened more than once to ignite a third world war, stands on the brink of a peace that seemed unthinkable only two weeks ago.

Yet in the Middle East itself, on the streets of Tel Aviv and in the Palestinian refugee camps, the mood is by no means euphoric. Even supporters of the peace accord - and they are a majority among both Israelis and Palestinians - appear too shocked by the sudden revelation of the secret deal, too anxious about the price their leaders have paid, and too worried by the risks, to celebrate.

Among Palestinians, the way in which Mr. Arafat struck out on his own to reach a deal with Israel, surrounded only by a few trusted aides and setting aside many long-cherished Palestinian principles, has dampened any enthusiasm they feel at the prospect of an honorable end to their struggle.Among Israelis, even ardent peace activists like novelist Amos Oz are cautious."Many good Israelis feel their world has collapsed around them," he told a pro-peace rally earlier this month. "We should not mock them or be disdainful of their fears, for some of their doubts are our doubts."To Palestinians long nurtured on PLO promises of independent statehood, the autonomy deal that Arafat will sign today is a pale and disappointing shadow of their dreams. Though many are resigned to it as the best they could accomplish, others see it as a catastrophe."This has closed the page of hope and prosperity for the Palestinian people," argues Labib Kamhawi, an Amman-based Palestinian political analyst. "The terms of the mutual recognition have transformed the Palestinian people from a nation aspiring for statehood into second-class citizens subordinate to another nation [Israel]."At best, suggests Azmi Bishara, a teacher of philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, "this is a beginning that opens options, but there is no necessity that this will result in the peaceful development of a state."Ironically, more Israelis see the autonomy agreement as the prelude to a Palestinian state, as Arafat has promised his people it will be.Even Israeli government officials, while voicing their opposition to such an outcome, do not rule out the prospect in the same definitive tones that they once used, and the general Israeli public appears increasingly inured to the idea."The direction points to a two-state solution," says Naomi Chazan, a Knesset (parliament) member from the left-wing Meretz group. "The critical point is the nature of our interaction, because things will only work if we realize we are both independent and interdependent simultaneously."The revolutionary vistas that the Israeli-Palestinian accord has opened up has sown profound concerns among its opponents. Naomi Blumenthal, a Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party, is little short of apocalyptic when she warns that "this may be the end of the existence of Israel as a Zionist Jewish state."Conversely, the accord has awakened bold hopes in Dr. Chazan, who sees it as "the concluding phase of the Zionist revolution."Since 1948, the bulk of our energies has been devoted to survival," she points out. "Now we can begin to deal with other things, and it will force us to define ourselves in terms of ourselves, not in terms of who we are in conflict with."If Israelis and Palestinians are to "get rid of a poisonous past and return to the land of milk and honey," in Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's words, today's framework accord between leaders will have to be made a catalyst for understanding between peoples.The tone was set Friday, when Israel and the PLO recognized each other's legitimacy. The PLO has undertaken to share what once was Palestine, and Israel has understood the Palestinians' case.For right-wing Israeli author Moshe Shamir, it is a cause for lament that "there has never been a moment during our thousands of years of Jewish history when a central national authority has recognized that this land belongs to another people, even if you add the word 'also' to another people."But it is precisely that recognition that has made today's ceremony possible.

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