Mideast Peace Hopes

Any sign of movement in the long-stalled Middle East peace process stirs hope. The potential benefits to both Palestinians and Israelis from a successful outcome are so great there's always the hope leaders on both sides might yet find their way to agreement.

Recent experience, however, provides little on which to pin such hopes. The peace process has been stuck on the question of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank for more than a year and a half. The time frame envisioned by the Oslo accords is crumpled.

Nonetheless, the meeting in Washington of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton has kindled a spark or two of optimism. Mr. Netanyahu appears to be coming around to withdrawing from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, a figure insisted on by the Clinton State Department and reluctantly agreed to by Mr. Arafat last February.

Still difficult details will presumably be worked out by the two sides at a follow-up gathering, possibly at Camp David, to be hosted by Mr. Clinton later in October. Those details include additional commitments from by Arafat's Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorist activity in territory it controls. This inevitably presents Arafat with the dilemma of not appearing to be Israel's stooge. At the same time, he doubtless realizes that extremists among his people can't be allowed a veto, through acts of violence, over every step toward peace.

Extreme right-wing elements within Israel have their own such veto, exercised through political influence within Mr. Netanyahu's coalition. If the prime minister is at long last ready to cross them and make the 13 percent withdrawal, that's all to the good. The talks between him and Arafat - after many months without such face-to-face contact - could pave the way toward final-status talks on Jerusalem, the question of Palestinian statehood, and a number of other fundamental issues.

If these talks are finally engaged, with clear seriousness on both sides, the Oslo timetable could be revived and extended. If today's flicker of hope is again stifled by intransigence, Oslo's formal deadline, next May, could become a showdown. Arafat has stated his determination to issue a unilateral declaration of statehood by that date, and Netanyahu has threatened harsh repercussions.

That scenario would serve no one - except the region's hotheads, who have for years fed off continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's time their "hopes" were stifled.

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