THE world has witnessed many remarkable moments in recent years that testify to humanity's desire for peace, freedom, and self-determination. The images remain fresh. Germans with crowbars, hammers, and bare hands stripping Berlin of its detested wall - followed by a stirring performance in Berlin of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in which Freiheit (freedom) replaced Freude (joy) in the final chorale. Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, defying a hard-liner coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev as the Russian flag, not its Soviet counterpart, flew above the crowd. African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela emerging into the sunshine after decades of imprisonment to assume a leading role in negotiating South Africa's transition to majority rule.
Into this pantheon of once-improbable images can now be added that of a former Israeli general, now prime minister, shaking hands with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel already is reaping benefits from the Sept. 13 ceremony in Washington, in which the two men signed the outlines of an interim agreement for Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip and in the West Bank town of Jericho. On Sept. 14, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin arrived in Morocco for a meeting with King Hassan II; the expectation was that Morocco would recognize the state of Israel. And Jordan announced that it had signed a negotiating agenda with Israel.
The impact for the Palestinians is less immediate. US officials say that the international community has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild Gaza, Jericho, and ultimately much of the West Bank. But the tasks of coordinating the aid and setting priorities for its use remain.
Each side left the ceremony with a significantly different charge. For Israel, it is that the government negotiate in good faith and in a timely manner to implement the interim agreement, and ultimately a permanent agreement, on Palestinian self-rule. For the Palestinians, it is more fundamental and more difficult: to demonstrate that they can govern responsibly.
The magnitude of the remaining tasks, especially in the face of violent opposition, can make the emotion of the moment seem quaint. It is our hope, however, that just as a modest meal of bread and water sustained the Hebrew prophet Elijah during his journey in the wilderness, this moment may help give sustenance for the difficult diplomatic and political journey ahead.