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Salvaging the Oslo Accord

THE Olso peace agreement so loudly hailed at the White House in 1993 when Yitzhak Rabin for Israel and Yasser Arafat for Palestine shook hands -- is now a wistful memory. This, in spite of Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent visit. The momentum has been lost. Israelis continue to build and expand Jewish settlements in territory that in theory someday should be part of a Palestinian state.

Arab guerrillas continue suicide attacks on Jews inside Israel.

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In theory, the peace process could be set in motion again.

Suppose, for example, that President Clinton could say to Prime Minister Rabin, ''Not one more penny of American aid to Israel unless you cease all construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and set a schedule for the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from those territories.''

Then Mr. Rabin could say to his people,''I have to do these things in order to keep the American subsidies.''

If Rabin then announced a schedule for withdrawal of Israeli troops, Mr. Arafat could more easily handle his own extremists. At present they have every reason to say that Arafat has lost all effectiveness as a liberator -- and that only their brand of terrorism will ever win the freedom.

But Mr. Clinton is politically incapable of putting such pressure on Rabin. Any attempt to do so would rouse the Israeli lobby into an anti-Clinton fury that could end any chance Clinton still has for a second term.

Without pressure from Washington, Rabin would not be politically capable of taking the one vital step without which peace in the Middle East can not be revived. That vital step is to cut Israel loose from the settlements, cease support for it, refuse it military security. Rabin would, in effect, have to say to the settlers: ''You are on your own. We will pay for your resettlement in Israel, but if you choose to stay in Arab territory you will have to come to terms with the Arabs yourself and expect to live under Arab law and depend on Arab police for protection.''

Without cutting Israel loose from the settlers there can be no peace. But could Rabin do this and still survive politically at home? The answer is almost certainly in the negative. Any abandonment of the settlers would trigger a terrible row in the Knesset and could well force a quick election, which Rabin could very easily lose, and lose disastrously. Is the Israeli public yet mentally willing to let go of the occupied territories?

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The only real chance for salvaging something from the White House handshake will be if Rabin can find a way of contracting the settlements, instead of expanding them. He has to take steps that point toward an ultimate end to the Israeli occupation. At the present time Israeli behavior points in the opposite direction -- continued expansion of the settlements. Hence, it points in the direction of permanent Israeli occupation.

So long as Israeli behavior on the ground points to permanent occupation, the Arab extremists can hardly be blamed for again taking up the bomb and dagger. It is impossible to say to the Arabs that time is working for them and that they should be patient. Time is on the side of the settlers, who are daily expanding their settlements.

The only hope for reviving the peace momentum is for American diplomacy to discover some way of invisibly persuading Rabin to offer the Arabs the prospect of a declining Israeli presence in the occupied territories. If that could be done, it would draw the fire from under the Arab extremists.

For Rabin to do that would be the height of statesmanship. But does he have the will and wisdom to be able to do it? If he does not, the prospect in Palestine is for indefinite guerrilla warfare and violence.

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