THE plan put forth months ago by Secretary of State James A. Baker III finally inched ahead this week as Israel's Cabinet agreed, with conditions, to its terms. The conditions set the stage for the next juncture in preparatory negotiations when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arrives in Washington next week to see Mr. Baker and, he hopes, President Bush.
Every small advance in getting opposing sides in the Middle East to talk to each other makes it a little harder to withdraw. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want to be seen as obstructing peace. But the conditions finally agreed to by the Israeli Cabinet do present obstacles.
Baker proposes negotiations in Cairo on how to implement Mr. Shamir's proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Those elections would choose Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on self-rule for the territories.
The sticking point now is selecting a Palestinian delegation to participate in the initial Cairo talks. The Israeli ministers, after bitter debate, agreed to the Baker plan only if the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is given no role in the talks.
But both the US and Egypt - the mediators in these negotiations - are in contact with the PLO. The assumption has to be that Yasser Arafat and his colleagues will have a behind-the-scenes voice, at the least.
A second Israeli condition concerned the scope of the Cairo talks: limiting them to the technical matters of holding elections. This restriction is unpalatable to the Palestinians, but the PLO didn't take up this gauntlet. It did, however, demand a say on choosing negotiators.
What's the outlook?
Israel has a tremendous interest in negotiating an end to the Palestinian uprising. Its economy, and its standing in the community of democratic nations, are suffering. The Palestinians need to see movement toward self-government. Mr. Arafat needs to show that his stand for moderation, together with the sacrifices of the intifadah, will pay off.
The small opening to peace engineered by Baker and Egyptian President Mubarak is an opportunity both sides should seize.