DEC. 13 was supposed to be Step One in the Israeli-PLO peace process - a glowing day in Middle East history. But Monday came and went with no agreement, no Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, and considerable violence. Prime Minister Rabin and PLO chairman Arafat set a new 10-day deadline for Step One. But now there are no ``sacred dates,'' in Mr. Rabin's words; Mr. Arafat wonders if the key April 13 date for complete Israeli withdrawal and PLO self-rule in Gaza and Jericho can be met.
Missing the deadline is a more serious matter than anyone is saying. The Oslo accord's strict timetable is presumably what gave meaning to the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake. Missing the deadlines harms the fragile trust and confidence the two sides need.
A kind interpretation of the missed Dec. 13 date suggests that what is important about the Oslo accord is that a timetable was agreed to in the first place. While dates may be fudged in the actual implementation, or details disagreed over, what is important is that the two sides embark on an irrevocable process of change.
The kind interpretation depends on the world community's commitment to resolving the Israeli-PLO problem through money and diplomacy, and on a belief that the key to Middle East peace is with the PLO.
Yet a harder interpretation of events is emerging. In this view, talks in Cairo are revealing an essential weakness of the original accord. This week's discussion on border crossings, which would begin to cement political agreements, makes the point: The PLO says control of Gaza and Jericho crossings is a minimum condition of autonomy; Israel says it never considered giving over such powers.
In the hard interpretation, the Palestinians know Arafat played all his cards in Washington - renounced their Covenant and the dream of a larger homeland. But what he got was not a real agreement, but only an agreement for direct talks. In these talks there is no clear end point, no final ground, no agreement on a two-state solution or self-determination - even in 10 years. Arafat got talks on ``limited self-rule'' and may lose the West Bank and Jerusalem.
If the talks fail, Israel returns to the status quo. The PLO, however, is destroyed. There is concern that the world community will not feel a commitment to the problem; also having played his cards, Arafat no longer has chips with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.
To create trust and peace, deadlines must be met, and wanted to be.