A breakthrough in the Middle East

TWENTY-FOUR hours and a few phrase changes later, it's done. The United States will begin a dialogue with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This step is fundamental, but it is only the barest beginning. Secretary of State George Shultz rightly emphasized that the dialogue is not an end in itself. The US goal - and presumably now that of the PLO and Israel - is a comprehensive Middle East peace.

With the US now able to talk to both sides in the conflict, the outlook for such a peace has brightened. But the work ahead is monumental. When discussion begins between the PLO and the American envoy, Robert Pelletreau Jr., who is US ambassador to Tunisia, the Palestinian positions will be carefully probed.

The US will be trying to assess the chances of getting the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate directly. Can even one side be flexible enough on such thorny issues as the status of Jerusalem to make direct talks feasible? Does the PLO have any flexibility on the boundaries of its proposed state?

What about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the territories whose uprising has been a major factor in the political shifts of the last few months? Will continued violence harm the fragile process of negotiation? Can Arafat do anything about it anyway?

If that process proves hopeful, the US - and specifically President-to-be George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker - will have the delicate task of coaxing Israel to join in. The questions for the Israelis are just as hard: Consider the thousands of Jewish settlers who now call the West Bank home.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, speaking for his Likud party, states flatly that he will never talk to the PLO. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party is slightly more willing to see some moderation in Arafat's position.

Mr. Peres accepts the concept of trading territory for peace. Both men, however, are opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state on the West Bank - which is central to Arafat's position.

The US decision to talk with the PLO will probably hasten the formation of a new government in Israel. Many Israeli politicians will see a need to close ranks in opposition to the US-PLO dialogue. But Israel's politics are ever volatile, and the voices calling for some kind of dialogue with Palestinians could grow louder.

An important process has begun.

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