Now that a Hebron agreement is finally signed, what next? Some analysts of Middle Eastern politics see the months of tense bargaining over that city as only a prelude. One close observer of the peace process volunteered, "Hebron was on the easy side of the hard stuff."
The really hard stuff, of course, includes final determination of Palestinian rights within Jerusalem and the drawing of final "borders" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Those decisions are still distant, though they overhang current talks.
Since much of the security plan key to the Hebron agreement had been implemented even before the formal signing, attention immediately shifts to the further Israeli redeployments agreed to in the Oslo peace accords. The timely intervention of Jordan's King Hussein over the weekend knocked negotiators out of a standoff on deadlines for those withdrawals. The compromise date is mid-1998, about a year later than originally planned.
The Palestinians now have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's signature on the new set of target dates - though the words of former Prime Minister Rabin, that no dates in the accords "are sacred," doubtless still reverberate. The Palestinians' patience will probably face new tests.
As will the Israelis'. If reminders were needed of the continued threats to this agonizingly slow dance toward peace, they were supplied by the recent outbreaks of violence - first the shooting of Arab shoppers in Hebron by a rogue Israeli soldier, then the pipe-bombings in Tel Aviv that injured 13 Israelis.
Extremists on both sides are all too quick to seize opportunities to sabotage the peace process. And political leaders have often been all to quick to play into the extremists' hands, breaking off talks because of violent acts. With their signatures on a new agreement, Yasser Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu are more than ever the central players. Will their personal commitment to the process overcome the dug-in resistance of some constituents?
Mr. Arafat has to show he can maintain vigilance against terrorist elements in Hamas and other groups. Mr. Netanyahu has to counter the mobilization of settler groups seeking to block further transfers of West Bank territory to Palestinian jurisdiction.
The prime minister is on record himself in opposition to such turn-overs of land. His party has always held that this real estate is part of "Greater Israel." But the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace hangs largely on Israel's readiness to return enough land to Palestinian control to satisfy demands for justice and security on both sides and provide a basis for lasting coexistence. How much is that - 50 percent, as many current Israeli planners envision, or the 90 percent hoped for by Arafat's administration?
These things are not spelled out in the accords. The tough bargaining will continue, with timely participation by Washington's emissaries and by interested regional leaders. The Hebron deal is indeed a prelude to even more sensitive negotiation. But it has nonetheless set a different tone, making a retreat harder and giving peace needed momentum.
The commit-ments involved in the agreement make a retreat from peace harder.