Oslo's Tight Timing

The Middle East still has a peace process, but its official life span extends only 12 more months. Under the Oslo plan, final status talks were to have concluded by May of 1999.

Instead of moving toward that goal, the process has stalled over how large a troop withdrawal the Israelis should now make from the West Bank. Three such withdrawals were called for by Oslo, with no percentages spelled out. So far, none has occurred.

At present, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority fully controls only the eight West Bank cities transferred by Israel early in the process (perhaps 2 percent or so of the land). It jointly controls another 27 percent of the West Bank, sharing security responsibilities with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that a withdrawal from an added 13 percent of West Bank land, as proposed by the US, would endanger Israeli security. That could be a bargaining ploy. Or it could spring from a belief that any further withdrawal of Israeli forces would isolate, and therefore endanger, some of the Israeli settlements sprinkled throughout the West Bank.

The settlements, after all, have always formed a huge knot in any peace process. They contradict the land-for-peace formula that has, theoretically, underlain Mideast peace efforts.

Oslo envisioned a peace that would accommodate most, if not all, the Israeli settlements. It assumed that Palestinian self-government could coexist with these islands of Israeli presence. That assumption was bought - or at least tolerated - by the Palestinians and Israelis who launched the peace process. It was rejected by the extremes on both sides. Mr. Netanyahu's Cabinet includes the Israeli extreme - those who believe Jewish settlers have an ancient, irrevocable right to the whole West Bank.

Is Netanyahu himself firmly in that camp? Or does he really want to move Oslo forward in the short time left?

Washington has to help convince the Israeli leader that there's only one reasonable answer to the second question. Lasting security will come from real peace between Israel and her closest neighbors - peace based on just terms, giving the Palestinians the independence they deserve.

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