THE current images in the Middle East would have been impossible to fathom 14 months ago. The PLO's Yasser Arafat is greeted by jeers at a Palestinian funeral in Gaza City. Front pages show Jordan's King Hussein lighting the cigarette of his new peace partner, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Syria's Foreign Minister welcomes and meets with American Jewish leaders. Mr. Arafat, Mr. Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres win the Nobel prize for peace.
Yet amid these remarkable images are tragic and familiar pictures of terror and mourning. Whether through bombing a Tel Aviv bus or firing on Jewish civilians in central Jerusalem, Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, is doing its utmost to disrupt the peace process. Only the most naive observer of the Middle East would have dreamed the peace process secretly initiated in Oslo would unfold easily and without bloodshed.
So why are so many columnists, diplomats, and hard-liners so quick to put down the peace process - to proclaim it morally corrupt, a sellout of the Palestinians, and practically moribund?
In newspapers and commentary, the ``whole loaf or nothing'' crowd is chipping away at the Oslo accords in a way they would not dare treat South Africa's, or Haiti's, complicated process. Whether because of Israel-bashing or political hyperbole these critics seem willing to return to the former status quo. Obviously, fair criticism of the process is merited. For many people, the fruits are still largely symbolic, and not yet felt on the ground. Jobless Palestinians and Israel's victims of terror are among them.
However, many critics of the peace process opposed it in the first place. Those who always found it easier to blame the plight of the Palestinians exclusively on Israel still scapegoat Israel for causing Hamas terrorism and Arafat's current failure to implement the political and economic sovereignty he now holds.
``The time has come not only to dream of a new future but to realize it,'' said Rabin at the signing of the Israel-Jordan accord. ``It will not be simply a piece of paper,'' said King Hussein, ``it will be real as we open our hearts and our minds to each other.''
Responsibility for implementing Palestinian self-determination is less glamorous than passing United Nations resolutions demanding it. The fruits of the process, even if unripe, need to be demonstrated for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
SINCE the handshake, the Palestinians have won more than the right to fly their flag and display Arafat's picture. After years of school closings, Palestinian teachers are now back in school teaching without Israeli censorship. The highly educated Palestinian community is able to pass on its tradition of literacy and academic excellence. Businesses are opening. The number of violent demonstrations has declined. Palestinian organizations operate to ensure the protection of civil and human rights. The present picture isn't rosy, but it's better.
Should Arafat someday heed the urgent pleas of his advisers to delegate authority and establish accountable infrastructures, the international aid spigot will open. This will lessen the Palestinian dependence on jobs in the West Bank and Israel and on pledged but unforthcoming Arab funds.
As a result of the peace process, the Jordanians and King Hussein have reaped a significant United States debt reduction and promises of aid. Americans and American Jews flock to Amman and Petra, bringing new trade and tourism dollars.
Finally, benefits from the peace process to Israel must be recognized. Since the 1991 Madrid conference, 53 nations have established or renewed relations with Israel. The Arab boycott is being dismantled. Israel's participation in all aspects of business and culture, even in the Arab world, is becoming accepted.
Rabin must work to convince the Israelis that the risks for peace are worth it and that their children will be secure.
For some, the examples of progress are not enough to justify the compromises; perhaps no amount of progress will do that. Scapegoating, resentment, bigotry, and terrorism have long kept the fires of the Arab-Israeli conflict going. Eventually, a majority of Arabs and Israelis have to say ``Enough is enough.'' They will have subscribed to John Lennon's Isaiah-inspired plea: ``All we are saying, is give peace a chance.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.