Giant Handshake for Mankind

Israeli-PLO accord may bring change in US foreign aid, defense, domestic decisions

THE 3,000 folding chairs are gone from the White House south lawn. The vast and photogenic space, a kind of United States National Amphitheater, is ready for its next event - perhaps the annual presentation of the president's Thanksgiving turkey. Limousine gridlock has eased around the Israeli Embassy, and crowds of Palestinians no longer mill in front of Yasser Arafat's hotel.

But in Washington, the Israeli-PLO rapprochement remains. It lingers, like smoke, after those responsible for it have left. It changes everything, or, at least, everything about the US and the Middle East. It changes foreign aid. It changes defense planning. It changes domestic politics.

As President Clinton noted at the ceremony, all presidents since Harry Truman have pursued the handshake that took place Sept. 13 between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The irony is that in the post-handshake era, the region may rank as high, or higher, on the US agenda. Shuttle diplomacy is difficult. But shuttle fund-raising and nation-building is harder.

``I look to see the United States being more deeply involved in the Middle East even than we have been in the past,'' said Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after the ceremony.

That is why the ceremony was held in the US at all. In the end, Norway was more responsible for bringing the parties together. The Nobel Peace Prize, which will undoubtedly stem from the Israeli-PLO agreement, is unlikely to end up in US hands. But all roads still lead to Washington. The US is now guarantor to Arafat and Mr. Rabin, playing the role of the rich and powerful uncle blessing the union.

The size of the wedding present is still far from clear. Israel, with Egypt the top recipient of US foreign assistance, already receives $3 billion a year in US funds. Clinton pledges to maintain this in the short run. The Palestinians will require a major infusion of international cash - the World Bank, for instance, has proposed a 10-year infrastructure plan for Gaza and the West Bank that would cost about $350 million a year.

US officials are vague about how much they plan to contribute. Instead, they point to the fact that they are already traveling the world with a tin cup. ``We've been talking to the Nordic countries, we've been talking to the Gulf states, we've been talking to the Japanese,'' pointed out one senior official.

US weapons may be part of the peace deal, too, strange as that sounds. The Israelis are interested in a new purchase of US fighter planes, and officials indicate that may be in the works.

Even voting machines may come with the handshake. Clinton indicated that the US was ready to provide help with the mechanics of elections.

As to diplomacy, the US will have a crucial role to play as Israel turns its attention to reaching an agreement on the Golan Heights with Syria. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad wants better relations with the US and the West to open his economy; he would also like his nation removed from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors.

US troops might be deployed to help police any Golan settlement. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said earlier this week that the US would consider joining in any peacekeeping effort that results from a Syria-Israel agreement.

Assad and Rabin in the Oval Office. Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it? Don't count against it. This week, after all, saw a remarkable scene of old foes at the same Washington ceremony. Who could have predicted it? George Bush and Bill Clinton, shaking hands.

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