WHEN PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in Washington last September, everyone involved knew a difficult slog lay ahead before their new peace pact was in place and Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho could truly begin.
But if the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the leader of Israel's government had foreseen exactly how hard things would get, they might have shaken their heads instead of hands.
Once again the peace process launched on that historic day is proceeding forward. Negotiators have maneuvered around the obstacles created by the massacre of Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in February, and they hope to agree on final details in the next few weeks.
Such deadlines have slipped past unmet in this Gaza-Jericho peace process before, however. And even as Palestinians ready themselves for an unprecedented taste of autonomy, the difficulties negotiators have encountered so far have raised new issues.
r Will Israel do more to restrain possible violence by settlers in the territories? Inevitably, the murder of at least 30 Palestinian worshipers by a settler has brought calls for an evacuation of settlers from Hebron itself. Many Palestinians insist the whole question of settlers must be dealt with now, rather than later, in the autonomy process.
[The Associated Press reported yesterday that, after a month-long manhunt, Israeli police arrested Baruch Marzel, the leader of the extremist Kach group, which was outlawed in the wake of the Hebron massacre. Kach advocates expelling Arabs from all Israeli-held territory.]
r Can Mr. Arafat hold the PLO together long enough to gain much-needed stature from improvements in daily life in the territories? The Hebron massacre, plus the killing of six activists in the Fatah faction of the PLO by Israeli Army undercover agents, has only strengthened the position of Palestinian factions that are opposed to peace with Israel.
Prime Minister Rabin and Arafat need to move quickly if the peace process is not to be derailed again. In moving to put the Hebron massacre behind them, both made decisions that indicate a ``certain urgency,'' in the words of Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Consider the security agreement hammered out last week in the wake of the Hebron killings: Its central provision, the establishment of a force of lightly armed foreign observers to patrol Hebron, represents a major concession in the opinion of many Israelis. Never before has Israel permitted an armed international presence in the territories.
Right-wing Israeli politicians warn that it will now be more difficult for them to resist efforts to place more foreign forces elsewhere on the West Bank and in Gaza. Palestinians have long sought such an internationalization of their struggle against Israeli rule.
``From the Israeli side, this agreement is quite precedent-setting,'' says Mr. Satloff.
For some on the Palestinian side, however, the 160 Norwegian, Danish, and Italian soldiers to be deployed in Hebron do not look like real protection. Only 60 members of this force will actually patrol - the rest will perform administrative functions. It is not clear exactly what the observers will have the power to do to deter or halt violence.
Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, says he is glad the peace process is moving forward once again. But he says the foreign observers ``do not meet our minimal expectation for a serious international presence. They have simply served as cover for the PLO to proceed forward'' with talks.
Policy on settlements
Mr. Jahshan says real security for Palestinians in the territory can only come from dealing with the settlers as a whole as soon as possible. The explosive question of what to do with these Jewish enclaves and their Israeli Army protectors is ``a deal-breaker,'' according to Jahshan. Better to address it now ``than have the process collapse in three years,'' he says.
It is highly unlikely that settlement policy will be changed before the Israeli pullout from Gaza and Jericho is completed. Attempting to do so would only bring a morass of delay. But the original PLO-Israeli peace deal says only that controversial issues related to the final status of the territories - such as the rights of Israeli settlers and the status of Jerusalem - shall be discussed ``not later'' than the beginning of the third year after the agreement goes into effect. It does not rule out taking up such issues earlier in the process.
One possible solution to the problem of the settlements would be a buyout plan by the Israeli government that would dangle cash before settlers willing to uproot themselves. Some members of the Israeli Cabinet are already calling for the closing of the most belligerent of the settler enclaves in Hebron; Rabin has insisted that such an action is not on the table right now, however.
Meanwhile, delay only strengthens factions on both sides that are unreconciled to peace. Arafat, in particular, badly needs to show that his leadership has resulted in some progress for Palestinians in the territories, however symbolic, if radical Islamic resistance is not to gain ground.
Yet to bring about that change, he must make decisions - such as acceptance of the small international observer force - that many of his supporters find unsatisfying.
``The delay has prolonged and perhaps intensified [Islamic militants in] Hamas in feeling they can prevent anything from occurring,'' says Richard Bulliet, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.