SCARCELY had Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein shaken hands on July 25, sealing their non-belligerency pact, than they were looking ahead to the work that still must be done before the Middle East knows peace.
The agreement, signed on the White House lawn under the aegis of US President Clinton, was hailed throughout the region as a historic landmark.
But King Hussein reminded his audience of the road yet to be traveled when he called the Washington Declaration ``a modest, determined beginning to bring to our region and our peoples the security from fear ... suspicion, the bitterness, the lack of human contact.''
Mr. Clinton too, pledging continued United States support for the peace process, told his guests that ``we must all go on until we ensure that the peace you are seeking prevails in the Holy Land and extends to all Israel's Arab neighbors. ``Our common objective of a comprehensive peace must be achieved,'' the US leader added.
The ghost hovering over the July 25 White House feast, of course, was Syria, the major holdout in Israel's efforts to normalize relations with its neighbors. Clinton's remarks, and Hussein's, were clearly directed at Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and the US president underlined that fact by phoning Mr. Assad on the evening of July 25.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher is due to return to Damascus early next month in his continued efforts to clear the way for talks between Syria and Israel, still bogged down over the future of the Golan Heights.
So far, Mr. Christopher has been unable to bridge the gap between Israel's refusal to say how far it will withdraw from the Golan Heights before Syria explains what it means by peace, and Syria's refusal to talk about peace until Israel pledges to withdraw fully from the Heights.
Rabin expresses optimism
But Mr. Rabin expressed optimism at a dinner on July 25 that US efforts would bear fruit. ``If we will continue to work together,'' he told Clinton, ``I believe we will see more steps in your term, and in my term'' of office, which ends in mid-1996. ``It's a lot of time,'' he added.
While there is no doubt about the price Syria demands for peace with Israel - a complete withdrawal from the territory captured in 1967 - observers here are far from certain that Rabin can convince Israelis to give up that land, which many see as essential to Israel's security. The Israeli leader has promised a referendum on this.
By contrast, a full peace treaty with Jordan, expected to follow the July 25 non-belligerency agreement within a few months, is unlikely to prove very difficult.
Not only are Jordanian territorial claims minor, but more importantly, Israeli and Jordanian officials have been dealing quietly with each other for years, establishing an atmosphere of trust that is bound to make the coming negotiations on land and water claims easier to handle.
Even the most sensitive point of difference between Israel and Jordan - how the waters of the Jordan River and its tributary, the Yarmouk, are to be shared - is already under discussion, according to reports from Norway.
There, over the weekend, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian officials have been holding secret talks on water distribution that the Israeli delegation leader, Avraham Katz-Oz, described as ``a very important step ... to achieve understanding on water between the partners in the Middle East.''
PLO-Israeli talks begin again
Those talks appeared to go beyond the official scope of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which started again in Cairo on July 26, over the extension of autonomy from Gaza and Jericho to the rest of the West Bank.
Those talks are focusing on five areas where the Palestinians are expected to take responsibility - education, health, social welfare, taxation, and tourism.
Water distribution had originally been left as one of the most sensitive items that would be negotiated as part of a final settlement.
Another of those sensitive issues has also come up, however, in the Washington Declaration. In the document Rabin and Hussein signed, Israel undertook to ``give high priority to the Jordanian historic role'' in the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem.
King Hussein has always insisted that as a descendant of the Hashemites, and of the Prophet Muhammad, he is the guardian of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, multilateral peace talks that have attracted 13 Arab countries to sit down with Israel since early 1992 are quietly tackling practical problems in the region.
Often called the ``stealth peace process'' because of the scant attention they have attracted, the multilateral negotiations have thrown up project ideas in all five of the areas under scrutiny - arms control, the environment, refugees, regional economic development, and water resources.
Although Syria and Lebanon have refused to join the talks until they see more progress in their bilateral negotiations with Israel, officials involved in the discussions see the multilateral track as the clearest indication of growing acceptance of Israel in the Middle East and the best hope for making regional peace sustainable.