Ayes in Gaza

Those who remember the emotional founding of the state of Israel half a century ago may feel a touch of dj vu as they watch Palestinians edging toward statehood.

President Clinton demurred when reporters interpreted his dramatic visit to Gaza as support for a Palestinian state. But his empathetic words spoke otherwise. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu obdurately objects. But despite the impasse-of-the-week atmosphere slowing implementation of the Wye land-for-peace accord, events and world opinion are inching toward a Palestine reality.

In Israel's run-up to statehood, as now, much resistance impeded the inevitable. Zionists waited three decades after Britain's 1917 Balfour Declaration gave them hope of a homeland state. Part of that wait took them through a period incalculably more perilous than the Sinai wilderness years preceding the biblical arrival in the promised land. But, with backing from Washington, the modern Jewish state was born.

The Palestinians have had their decades of waiting, of being spurned, dispossessed, bombed, and crudely caricatured. Their diaspora scattered them to four continents. Their militants, like the Zionist Irgun, used violence that both pushed forward and bloodily disrupted the peace process.

President Clinton deserves credit, in his hour of dire peril at home, for emotively wooing Palestinians to renounce before the world their long fight against Israel's right to exist. He deserves credit also for reminding Israelis how little the downtrodden Palestinians have gained from peace deals. Washington appears to be returning to evenhandedness.

It now remains for Israelis to find their way back to the bright promise that preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Then, Israel seemed to be moving on a tough but fair path to peace with all its immediate neighbors.

Year-in-year-out, 60-plus percent of Israelis tell pollsters they want a secure land-for-peace settlement. The Palestine leaders' overwhelming "aye" vote in Gaza should add reassurance. Now the onus is on Israel's leaders to complete what they promised at Wye.

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