Promise of Camp David

A DECADE after the historic Camp David agreement, it's easy to look at the situation in the Mideast and despair at the lack of progress. No country other than Egypt has made peace with Israel. The West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights remain under Israeli control. The threats to Israel now include modern ballistic missiles tipped with chemical weapons. Overflowing refugee camps and new Israeli settlements add to rising tensions in the occupied territories. The longing for a Palestinian homeland is stronger than ever. But it remains frustrated, symbolized by the intifadah that has lasted more than a year and cost hundreds of lives.

Things have changed in the Mideast, however, and in how the rest of the world relates to that troubled region. And the result could be new opportunities for peace, which - in this place, of all places - has to mean much more than the absence of war.

Israel's government remains as intransigent as ever. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refuses to talk with the PLO or even to consider giving up the occupied territories. But all around him, the mood in Israel seems to be shifting. Soldiers anguish over the brutalizing aspects of being an occupying force. Most Israelis now are willing to talk with the PLO. In a report written by the former head of military intelligence, the country's top think tank recognizes the need for an independent Palestinian state. And this week, Israel's intelligence agency reported that the intifadah demands a political solution including the PLO.

As usual, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat is finding it hard to control the more radical elements of his organization, which continue to make military forays at (and sometimes into) Israel. But the Palestine National Council now implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist. And Arafat has gone an important step further, not only explicitly acknowledging that right but renouncing ``all forms of terrorism.''

The United States, having held out for the promises Arafat now has made, is talking with the PLO. The US openly criticizes the ``substantial increase'' in human rights violations by Israel in the occupied territories. It disagrees with Israel over what constitutes terrorism. Influential members of Congress talk openly about tying US aid to Israel to human rights improvements.

The Soviet Union, once viewed as a spoiler in the region, now seems more willing and able to play a constructive role.

Taken together, these changes affecting all the key players offer at least some reason for hope.

The Bush administration is free of the two dark clouds that hung over its predecessor's modest efforts in the region: backing Israel's invasion of Lebanon and pursuing an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran while that country was at war with an Arab state. It is moving cautiously but deliberately, nudging both Israel and the PLO in the right direction, which is toward each other.

The logical and necessary next step is for the Israeli government to talk with PLO officials or (more likely) their representatives in the occupied territories. Both Shamir and Arafat need to find ways to lessen the violence so that the voices of those who are fearful on both sides can be heard.

Building trust will not be easy. But it's essential if the promise of Camp David is to be fulfilled.

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