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Middle East Momentum

THE Palestinian Council this week ratified the new PLO-Israeli peace accord, giving Yasser Arafat authority in Gaza and Jericho. The decision eliminates the last stumbling block to the treaty signed Sept. 13 at the White House. On Wednesday the treaty's Declaration of Principles took effect and negotiations began on a transfer of authority in Gaza-Jericho to the PLO.

This is Phase 1 of a dizzying, arduous five-year process. By Dec. 13 the agreement on transfer must be complete, the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority forms, and agreements on Israeli military and civil withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho begin. Mr. Arafat then moves from Tunis to Jericho.

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The new treaty has been ardently praised and bitterly opposed in the Middle East. Both sides compromised, though the Palestinians are clearly the weaker party. They agreed to delay for two years even the right to raise questions on the final status of Jerusalem, land, water, zoning, refugees, borders, and UN Resolution 242. Israelis in the occupied territories don't feel secure. More broadly, the key to Arab-Israeli peace now lies with Syria; but Hafez al-Assad has not yet bought on to a treaty negotiated behind his back.

Still, momentum is growing. Palestinian terrorism and Israeli repression continue. But minds, if not always hearts, have changed; even Hamas may take a new approach. While ultimate legal, moral, and historical claims can't be shelved, the fateful step of signing means, in the words of a leading Palestinian scholar, ``one does not have the luxury of euphoria or being dismissive, considering what is at stake. To fail will be catastrophic.''

The time frame for change is extraordinary. By April 13 PISGA takes over in Gaza-Jericho, and Israel is mostly out. By July 13 elections for a new Palestinian council take place, and Israel entirely withdraws.

Interim negotiations will be tough. The timetables are very specific, but the principles are general. Agreeing on health, trade, tourism, culture, taxes - for starters - will make real demands on the somewhat languid Palestinian diaspora; the sheer number of decisions will require Arafat to abandon his autocratic style.

The US must continue to push for loans and financing. Without money, the agreement can't work. Palestinians are a capable people. Economic help is crucial. But needed are hints that economic help is leading to sovereignty. That is the only just legal, moral, and historical path. Economic help that ignores the right of self-government is still incomplete.

To this end, Israel can stop its ongoing settlement expansion. Congress just suspended $400 million of the $2 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to protest expansion. To stop would give a needed hint about a just resolution.

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