Unfinished Handshake

ON a sunny White House lawn one year ago today, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on a deal that took the world's breath away. The two represented one of the deepest struggles - between Arab and Jew - of the era.

Mr. Arafat, driven from Amman to Beirut to Tunis since 1968, was the Arab symbol not only of the Palestinian desire for a homeland, but of Arab popular resistance to a Zionist state in their midst. For Israelis and many Americans, Arafat was a symbol of terrorism, of anti-Western ideas - a friend of Soviet Moscow and Saddam.

Hence the handshake was seen as a kind of new Camp David. Israelis recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO agreed to accept a five-year process of ``self rule'' in Gaza and Jericho that allowed Arafat to return to those places and take responsibility for its government and policing. For Palestinians, it was not a homeland; but it was something.

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For Tel Aviv, it was a historic opportunity, made possible by US involvement and the end of the cold war, to open relations to the Arab world by removing the central obstacle - the Palestinian cause. In this sense, the process succeeded. In July, Jordan and Israel began to normalize relations and in August, Morocco and Israel. A deal between Syria and Israel seems likely. A Mideast economic co-prosperity sphere is possible.

Yet that historic shake between Mr. Rabin and Arafat, while opening up the Arab world, has not delivered what many Palestinians - as well as just-minded Americans - thought it would. The deal could never be Camp David because the Palestinians have no state. They still live under a brutal occupation. Their elections agreed to for July 13 have not occurred.

Indeed, the story among Palestinians a year later is what can only be called a terrible disillusionment with Arafat. He is now widely viewed as having sold out his cause and his people. While the most fundamental problems - land, water, borders, and Jerusalem - are called ``final status'' issues, they are being altered as facts change on the ground. Settlements continue. Arafat's authority is monitored by the Israelis. The questioning of Arafat and the peace deal is no longer limited to Hamas. It exists in Arafat's inner circle in Fatah, among the loyal opposition on the left, and among many on the National Council who did support the 1991 Madrid talks. Arafat is intensifying his highly autocratic style. PLO death threats to Palestinian intellectuals in the territories, and even in the United States, have occurred. This must end. Arafat must allow elections to take place to let new leaders emerge. The US and Israel must encourage this. For peace, any accord must lead more directly to Palestinian sovereignty.

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