IF the Gaza-Jericho arrangements between Israelis and Palestinians successfully take effect, that step can usher in a new era for both nations and for the whole Middle East.
For Palestinians, this arrangement may signal the beginning of the end of a 45-year period of dispersal, repression, and vilification.
For Israelis, it could signal the beginning of the end of 45 years of estrangement from the region within which they live. And if the energies of both peoples and the Syrians turn to peaceful reconstruction, they could stimulate an economic boom for all their neighbors.
Other hurdles remain before Palestinians get their first taste of self-rule. If Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is to sell the deal to his public, then he must show that it meets Israel's security concerns.
If PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is to sell the deal to his public, he must demonstrate that Gaza-Jericho is firmly linked to future progress on all the other occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.
The steps toward the Gaza-Jericho deal that both sides have taken so far are the culmination of a special ``citizen diplomacy'' that both sides have been conducting for many years.
On the Israeli side, peace pioneer Abie Nathan, and leading Labor luminaries have been meeting with PLO personalities for 10 years or more. I have taken part in, or helped to set up, a number of these meetings, which have involved people like former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, President Ezer Weizman, and former head of military intelligence Aharon Yariv.
On the Palestinian side, PLO Executive Committee Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazent) has been charged for 19 years with masterminding PLO contacts with Israeli figures. He has been helped by pro-PLO business executive Nabil Shaath, by leaders from the occupied territories like Faisal Husseini, and by many of the PLO's ambassadors in Western Europe.
Throughout the past 10 years, while official Israeli policy was firmly set against contacts with the PLO, the relationship that evolved between PLO and Israeli personalities became much closer than that between Israel and Egypt, with whom they have formal peace. Partly, this was because many Egyptians felt guilty that their country had peace while Israelis were still fighting Palestinians in Lebanon or the West Bank. They compensated for this by shunning all contact with Israelis. Partly, too, it was because many PLO figures learned a lot about Israeli society and culture.
Some, like Arafat adviser Imad Shakour, started off as Israeli citizens, getting their basic education in Hebrew as well as Arabic. Others joined the PLO from the occupied territories, where they had a close-up view of the strengths and weaknesses of Israeli society. For years, Faisal Husseini has been touring Israel, speaking to groups of Israelis in think-tanks and social clubs - in fairly fluent Hebrew.
A year ago, I helped to lead a meeting that involved ``citizen diplomats'' from 10 Middle Eastern countries. At one stage, participants broke into small groups to discuss issues in the resolution of conflicts. In one group, an Israeli and a Palestinian found themselves together with colleagues from Iraq and Kuwait.
Afterward, the Kuwaiti reported that he had asked his Iraqi colleague why Iraq's government could not, at least, apologize for the destruction of the 1990 occupation. ``But my Palestinian and Israeli colleagues advised me that holding out for a formal apology might not be the wisest thing for Kuwaitis to do,'' he said. ``They said they had learned that such apologies are always difficult for the other side to give, up front, but that there were other issues to do with your future relationship that could be resolved more immediately.''
The Israeli and Palestinian citizen diplomats had learned some important lessons. It is the efforts of people like these that Americans should back, as we help in the search for Middle East peace over the years ahead.