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Historic West Bank Pact Sidesteps a Core Issue

THE bulky agreement between Israel and Palestinians that will be signed amid pomp and ceremony this week at the White House is a milestone on the road to a Middle East peace. It may also be a rest stop.

The 460-page document extends interim Palestinian self-rule beyond the Gaza Strip and Jericho to the West Bank, marking the beginning of the end of 30 years of Israeli military rule. But it largely avoids the core issues that few Israelis will be eager to confront any time soon: whether, in the end, there will be a Palestinian state; where its capital will be; and what place Jewish settlers and soldiers will have in it.

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''As they get closer and closer to the nub of the issue, it gets harder and harder,'' says William Quandt, a former Carter administration official who helped draft the 1977 Camp David accord. ''This may be the last negotiated agreement we'll see for some time.''

The accord is scheduled to be signed at noon Sept. 28 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein will also attend the ceremony.

The document calls for Israeli troops to be withdrawn from the main Arab population centers that make up about 30 percent of the West Bank and for elections for a new Palestinian Council, an executive-legislative body that will represent Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Elections will be held in about six months, after the last Israeli troops are withdrawn from populated Arab areas. Israeli troops will remain in control of Jewish settlements and military areas.

Despite the protests of Israel's hard-line Likud Party, diplomatic analysts say, the document is one they can probably live with since it does not require abandoning Jewish settlements or Israeli security positions in the Jordan Valley and since Israeli troops will remain in position to choke off any of the seven urban areas if they become centers of unrest.

But if a Likud government comes to power in elections next year it will be less inclined than Rabin's Labor Party to take the next step by negotiating the final status of the West Bank and Gaza. Final status talks are scheduled to begin next May.

Both Rabin and Arafat were eager to finalize the interim agreement as quickly as possible, and for the same reason: The sooner elections are held the better, since support for moderate, pro-Arafat Palestinians is now strong relative to extremists loyal to the ''Hamas'' movement, who eschew peace with Israel.

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The stage was set for the signing by a series of events that, for perhaps the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, have provided every party with a good reason to want peace.

The Palestinian uprising, which began in December 1987, convinced many Israelis that the economic, moral, and public-relations cost of occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip was too high, even as it convinced Arafat that he could recognize Israel and agree to the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states from a newfound position of strength.

Three years later, the collapse of its main patron and arms supplier, the Soviet Union, convinced Syria, one of Israel's bitterest enemies, that it could only win back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights through negotiations with Israel. The talks are proceeding slowly on a separate track.

In 1991, the victory of a US-led coalition in the Gulf war established the US as the predominant outside power in the Middle East, a circumstance the Bush administration skillfully translated into pressure on all parties to sit down at the bargaining table, which they did in Madrid in 1991.

In a historic White House ceremony in September 1993, Arafat and Rabin signed a general framework for Palestinian self-rule which has been turned into the detailed document that will be signed at the White House on Sept. 28.

Once Israeli troops begin to withdraw and Palestinians elect a governing council, analysts say, the peace process is likely to be all but irreversible short of war.

Which means that the White House ceremony will be the most visible sign yet that the dreams of radical Arabs to destroy Israel and ''throw Jews into the sea'' - and of radical Jews to create a ''Greater Israel'' and expel Palestinians - are largely dead.

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