Middle East's Window of Peace

THERE have been very few window-openings for peace in the Middle East in the last 40 years, and when the window has been cautiously opened it has generally been slammed smartly shut.

Now the window is open again, and Arabs and Israelis are testing the delicate breezes of peace in the most salubrious atmosphere since Anwar Sadat's dramatic overture to the Israelis in 1977.

This week, as a striking gesture of goodwill, the Israelis began releasing several hundred Palestinian prisoners from the dusty desert detention centers in which they have long been held for their defiance of Israeli rule.

These moves are accompanied by a number of other positive Israeli gestures, and a much more constructive tone toward peace negotiations than has hitherto been the case.

Why the turnabout?

In part it is due to a new posture on the part of the United States, and in very large part to significant political shifts within Israel itself.

Though a variety of US administrations have professed even-handedness between Arabs and Israelis, the fact is that Israel has traditionally enjoyed a special relationship with Washington.

Israel has been especially protected in Congress by politicians who are particularly susceptible to the Israeli lobby.

This does not mean that this special relationship has been without its tempestuous moments.

Ronald Reagan was about as angry as at any time in his presidency when in 1982 he bellowed over the phone to Jerusalem his demand that the Israelis halt their blitzkrieg into Lebanon and their destruction of Beirut. But still the Reagan administration was generally highly solicitous and supportive of Israel throughout President Reagan's tenure.

With the advent of the Bush administration, the US tone changed somewhat. In part this was because of heavy-handed Israeli suppression of the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank.

Television pictures that went around the world generally portrayed Israel in an unfavorable light. American respect for Israel suffered. Some sections of the American Jewish community became disturbed.

In this environment it became politically feasible for the US government to take a more admonishing role toward Israel.

This coincided with Secretary of State James Baker III's vision of nudging Israel and the Arabs to a peace agreement - a coup that would crown his stewardship of American foreign policy.

Thus the Bush administration played hardball with a very hardline government in Israel, that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the stocky little former guerrilla fighter whose middle name seemed to be Intransigence, particularly where the expansion of Jewish settlements onto the West Bank was concerned.

Then came the big break. In Israeli elections, Mr. Shamir was ousted as prime minister by Yitzhak Rabin, a man who has already proved himself willing to take major risks on behalf of peace with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors.

With Mr. Rabin's inauguration, there have been significant changes in Israeli style, and some portents of change in substantive positions, such as a limited pullback of Israeli forces from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, Israeli spokes-men are recognizing the Palestinians as a delegation in their own right and not as an appendage of Jordan. The Israeli ban on contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) seems to be eroding. As we have seen this week, Palestinian prisoners are being released.

There is much gnashing of teeth over all this on the part of former Prime Minister Shamir and Israeli conservatives.

The Palestinians, and such major Arab players as Syria, need to be sensitive to these internal Israeli strains.

Prime Minister Rabin is taking major political risks on behalf of peace. To his political critics at home he must demonstrate a pay-off in terms of matching constructive movement on the Arab side. And soon.

For the moment, the window remains ajar through which Arabs and Israelis can conduct their negotiations about peace. It will slam shut again unless the rhetoric is succeeded by tangible and positive new steps.

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