THE Oct. 21 address of Prime Minister Shimon Peres to the UN General Assembly went through at least five drafts. In final form it had the precision of a Spinoza philosophical essay, and like Spinoza too, it was remarkable for its restraint, seeking not to impose a solution but to define a process by which the parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute could derive their own. Much press coverage focused on the dramatic declaration with respect to Jordan that the state of war between the two countries should be terminated immediately.
But that was not new. Israel has always been ready to reach peace with Amman, albeit on terms that King Hussein has not been willing to accept.
Of far more importance, the Israeli Prime Minister:
Recognized the Palestinian people as a discrete entity whose problem requires a political solution.
Accepted the right of the Palestinian people to participate in that solution.
Left the door open for the direct participation of the PLO in the negotiating process.
Provided that the negotiating framework can expand beyond the checklist the Israelis care most about, specifically, Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the Camp David accords.
Preserved the option of an international context for the negotiations.
Offered a procedure whereby talks among the parties can begin while deferring the most troublesome matters of substance and procedure.
Achieved all of this without stepping off the tightrope of the coalition agreement between his Labor Party and the rival Likud.
From all indications, Peres began his visit hoping the PLO had taken itself out of the peace process by its alleged involvement in the Larnica, Barcelona, and Achille Lauro incidents, and its diplomatic gaffe in London when two PLO representatives were disinvited from a meeting with Foreign Minister Sir Geoffrey Howe after refusing to reject political violence and accept Israel's right to exist.
But in Washington Peres again confronted the reality which has escaped so many of his predecessors: For King Hussein to bargain with the PLO, he needs to be assured of the complete recovery of land conquered by Israel in 1967. Once territorial compromise is the order of the day, Hussein needs a legitimate Palestinian presence to sanctify the deal.
For better or worse, that presence can be furnished only by the PLO, designated as such by the remainder of the Arab world and -- despite serious factionalization the agent to which an overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs remain loyal.
Israel is on equally firm ground in insisting that as a precondition to participation in the talks, the PLO renounce violence and accept the two resolutions. If it is unwilling or unable to do both, then Hussein has grounds for moving ahead either unilaterally or with Egypt.
Viewed in the least charitable light, the PLO has balked because its divided minions can agree on nothing but continued terrorism. Giving the benefit of the doubt, the PLO has a case when it argues that 242 and 338 treat the Palestinian people simply as a ``refugee problem'' and that for the Palestinian people to accept these resolutions, others which endorse financial compensation for those expelled from their homeland or which suggest a right of self-determination must also be on the table.
For this reason, PLO observers at the UN were gratified when Peres spoke not only of the two resolutions, but also of Israel's ``willingness to entertain suggestions proposed by other participants.''
Similar flexibility was shown when, after listing negotiating objectives, Peres declared, ``The Camp David accords provide a possible basis for the attainment of these objectives.'' Since both Jordan and the PLO reject the Camp David formula, providing other possible bases for settlement is critical.
The key Peres proposal was stated as follows: ``In order to expedite this process, the agenda, procedure, and international support for negotiations can be discussed and agreed upon at a meeting of small working teams to be convened within 30 days.''
Such teams could get the parties talking at a level where the question of PLO participation need not be confronted directly, since the PLO can easily designate a few delegates who would not be objectionable to Israel.
While these working group discussions continue, the PLO could address in concrete fashion the questions of political violence and Resolutions 242 and 338. If its position changes, it can enter the next higher stage of negotiations as a full participant. If not, it can be excluded by the other parties in good conscience.
The Peres statement was masterful in providing broad perimeters for the talks while keeping within the bounds of the coalition agreement. Thus, he indicated the negotiations ``may deal with the demarcation of boundaries as well as the resolution of the Palestinian problem.'' But he made no specific offer of territorial compromise, which under the coalition deal, would require a fresh mandate from the Israeli electorate.
As was the case with King Hussein, Peres spoke as a statesman who realized that time is short. His reference to the brotherhood of Jews and Arabs as ``sons of Abraham'' was a touching tribute to a similar passage in the Hussein UN address. But these leaders need the political and material support of the United States. Without a US effort that matches their own in terms of vision, courage, and commitment, they may reach toward each other without ever clasping hands.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.