THE key to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is sticking in the lock.
After last week's headlong, euphoric rush toward the historic peace agreement worked out in secret talks, the momentum has been slowed by a delay in mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Though nobody doubts such recognition will come, the difficulties in arranging it are an indication of how delicate the peace process still is, and of how many potential pitfalls lie in its path.
At the same time, the general confidence that Israel will soon legitimize the organization it has always equated with terrorism, and that the PLO will unequivocally acknowledge Israel's right to exist, is itself astounding after 30 years of mutual hatred and mistrust (PLO eases isolation, Page 7.)
The Israeli government is ready to sign the agreement, worked out secretly in talks with PLO officials in Norway, for Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza strip and the West Bank town of Jericho even before it formally recognizes the PLO. But PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is anxious for recognition as one of the rewards of the deal and is withholding his final signature.
``Mutual recognition would enable both parties to make the agreement more valid,'' one Palestinian source close to the negotiations argues. ``Leaving it to the delegations in Washington to sign would not give it so much momentum.''
Only one year ago, Israelis risked a jail sentence if they were found to have met any official of the PLO, branded a terrorist organization. But since revoking the law banning any contacts with the PLO, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has taken increasingly bold steps, both publicly and privately, that overturn an Israeli policy that had previously been written in stone. [The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, even said in a TV interview Monday that a Palestinian state was an ``open issue.''] PLO authority
``Like it or not, it is a clear fact of life'' that only the PLO can make decisions for the Palestinians, despite Israel's decades-long effort to find alternative Palestinian leaders, concedes Foreign Ministry Director-General Uri Savir, who headed Israel's secret negotiating team.
Israel's readiness to formalize its de facto recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, however, hinges on the PLO's readiness to recognize Israel and to renounce violence, conditions that are causing much disagreement among Palestinians.
``This has to do with changing the traditional negative positions that are inherent to the organization,'' said Mr. Savir.
Israel is demanding that the PLO should explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, condemn and disavow terrorism and violence, erase all paragraphs in the PLO covenant that call for the destruction of Israel, and call a halt to the intifadah, the five-year-old uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
Although Mr. Arafat and his Fatah wing of the PLO are ready for such concessions, only the full Palestine National Council (PNC), the 460-member Palestinian parliament-in-exile, has the authority to amend the covenant. Convening the PNC could take months, longer than either side wants to wait to sign the accord.
Israel has indicated that it would accept a pledge from the PLO Executive Committee that the covenant will be amended, but in the face of opposition from more radical PLO leaders, Arafat is having difficulty finding a way to make such a pledge without seeming undemocratic, according to a Fatah source at PLO headquarters in Tunis. The 18 members of the PLO Executive Committee, on which Fatah has an outright majority, are due to discuss recognizing Israel at a meeting Wednesday.
Meanwhile, sources familiar with the secret talks that are continuing in various European capitals do not discount the possibility that some Arab governments might immediately follow the PLO's lead in recognizing Israel, ending the regional isolation the Jewish state has suffered since its foundation in 1948.
One of the delays over recognition ``has to do with seeing how far the other parties to the negotiations are prepared to go,'' according to an Israeli official. Other Arab parties
``In the past week, we have seen signs of interest from different Arab parties ... who are starting to move toward a different view of the future ... a view no different from the view held here by our government,'' Mr. Savir, the Foreign Ministry director said Sunday night. ``Everyone in the region seems to want to jump on the bandwagon.''
With hints that Israel and Syria may be close to an agreement on the Golan Heights, some still hope Israel may be able to sign comprehensive peace treaties with its neighbors in the next few days, if not by next Monday, when the US government is planning to host a signing ceremony between Israel and the Palestinians.