The Prize in the Mideast

YITZHAK RABIN and Yasser Arafat now have begun a third mortgage payment on their Nobel Prizes.

The first payment came when they began to bargain seriously about settling their 47-year-old hot and cold wars over land for Palestine and peace for Israel.

The second payment involved the return of Jericho near the Jordan River and Gaza on the Mediterranean to Palestinian administration.

The step they have just taken - a program for turning over to Mr. Arafat's control six Palestinian towns and about 91 percent of the villages on the West Bank - begins to create a momentum that could break one of the most difficult logjams in the world today. Mr. Rabin is reported to have told his Cabinet that it struck a "mighty blow to the delusion of a 'Greater Israel.' " If the momentum builds - a big if - it could do much more than that. On the global stage it could help reduce long-term threats to Europe's and Japan's oil supply. It could lessen the uneasy feeling that America is about to import terrorist attacks.

Just as important, it could begin to give leaders with a constructive vision of the future of the Mideast a chance to spell out that vision for their war-weary, embittered peoples.

Careful economists like the International Monetary Fund's No. 2, Stanley Fischer, have projected the development of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Greater Beirut into various high- and mid-tech exporting, banking, trade, tourism, and education centers. Such a vision involves settlement of water disputes in the West Bank and Southern Lebanon, allowing more cultivation of early fruits and vegetables that command premium prices in Europe. It also foresees a common market fostering trade and eventually labor flows within the region.

Any such vision has to accept that many potential stumbling blocks lie ahead. Settlers with deep convictions about Greater Israel could mount violent obstruction. So could Hamas fighters with equally deep convictions about land not included in the deal.

The return of the town of Hebron to Arab administration is not yet settled. Water rights and control over East Jerusalem remain to be dealt with. A Syrian-Israeli deal of land-for-peace must still be reached. Arafat must continue to prove his ability to control violence. So must the Israeli government prove its will to control settler violence.

In short, no one should be under the illusion that a string of new Singapores is around the corner. But neither should any of the parties involved in peace talks forget they are all involved in defining the new Promised Lands. Getting there remains tough. But it lies within the realm of the doable.

A vision of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon as exporting, banking, trade, and education centers.

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