THE 15-month-old accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization has lost so much momentum that it appears near collapse, triggering doubts about a wider Mideast peace.
While optimism still prevails among many backers of the accord, the hope that followed the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Washington last September - after secret talks in Norway - has given way to inaction and disillusionment on both sides.
``What we are witnessing these days is the death throes of the Oslo agreement,'' says Shlomo Gazit, a former Israeli Defense Force Intelligence chief now with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Mr. Arafat, although he would probably emerge as the victor in Palestinian elections held within the framework of the accord, is losing both support and influence and has failed to make the transition from a liberation leader to the manager of an embryonic Palestinian state.
Mr. Rabin leads a government that has fallen back on crisis management and has no unified strategy on how to move to the next stage of the peace process.
The despair, reflected in the comments of Israeli analysts, is matched by the cynicism of Palestinian intellectuals who have all but abandoned Arafat.
``The whole Oslo agreement is in trouble,'' says Zacharia al-Qaq, director of a Jerusalem-based research center. ``What is needed is a reconciliation among Palestinians. Arafat has not taken the Palestinian people into his confidence.''
Extremists on both sides have undermined the process necessary to sustain the five-year agreement intended to lead to an undefined form of Palestinian self-rule.
Economic misery in the territories earmarked for self-rule has been skillfully exploited by militant Islamic groups pursuing a dual strategy of political mobilization and armed attacks against Israeli military targets and civilians.
The deteriorating security situation in Israel and the rapidly worsening economic situation in those occupied territories due to govern themselves have denied Rabin and Arafat the necessary support among their own constituencies to confront the forces opposing the peace agreement.
Rabin seems unable to address the problem of the Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, home to some 120,000 settlers who have blended radical Zionism and Jewish orthodoxy into a potent brew of resistance in places such as Hebron.
Arafat, unable to show many tangible benefits from his cooperation with Israel, seems powerless to counter the sustained challenge from Islamic extremists and growing disillusionment among the Palestinian rank-and-file.
The period following the signing of the accord has seen the worst violence for Israelis since Israel was created in 1948. But the rate of Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank has subsided.
Some 93 Israelis have died mainly in a wave of attacks by militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which mounted a sustained challenge to Arafat's Palestinian Authority, set up to run Palestinian self-rule.
During the same period, some 187 Palestinians have died mainly at the hands of an increasingly strained Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which bears the burden of protecting Jewish settlers living in the self-rule areas.
But behind the violence and despair is a realization that the peace process has also created a broader momentum toward a Middle East peace and delivered lasting gains that need to be consolidated and used as the foundation for a negotiated resolution of the current impasse.
The July treaty with Jordan has added new strength. And Israel's improving relations with Tunisia, Morocco, and the Gulf states are sustaining that broader momentum.
A similar breakthrough in the Israel-Syria track would increase pressure on the PLO to seek further compromises ahead of Palestinian elections.
Possible compromises will come under discussion in Cairo tomorrow when Israel-PLO negotiations resume in two committees to discuss the interim arrangement and work out the details of Palestinian elections.
Both sides are under pressure to demonstrate some progress before Saturday when Rabin, Arafat, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will receive the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
And US Secretary of State Warren Christopher will arrive in Israel tomorrow for talks with Rabin before traveling to Damascus in a bid to break the Israel-Syria impasse.
The three major options facing the Israeli Cabinet, which met yesterday to discuss the crisis, have been floated in recent weeks by opposing factions in Rabin's divided coalition Cabinet.
The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University spelled out the options in a detailed report this week:
* To move toward a redeployment of Israeli forces in the occupied territories, leading to Palestinian elections.
* To freeze the process - either by suspending negotiations or using delaying tactics. This would effectively prolong the status quo.
* To move back to a previous stage of the process - reoccupying areas under Palestinian self-rule - pending an improvement in the security situation.
* To abandon the entire process and engage in unilateral actions or seek an alternative negotiating partner.
The stalemate in the peace process has led to calls from both Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals to define the ultimate goal of the accord and start grappling now with the final status of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, and the position of some 2.3 million Palestinian refugees.
This position is advocated by deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, the man widely regarded as a key architect of the Oslo accord. Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a liberal in the Rabin Cabinet, proposed a mixed redeployment of Israeli troops, the selective dismantling of 10 smaller settlements, and consolidation of larger ones.
Rabin proposed dropping redeployment altogether except for a three-day withdrawal of Israeli troops to allow for Palestinian elections to be held. But he withdrew from this proposal after Palestinian and Israeli criticism.
Retaining the settlements, and providing the necessary security to sustain them, conflicts with his stated goal of a negotiated territorial partition between Israel and a future Palestinian self-rule territory.
``A majority of Israelis know that the process will end in a sovereign Palestinian state: So let's spell it out now,'' Mr. Gazit suggested in an article in the Jerusalem Post on Friday.
``The format of Oslo should be changed so that the IDF isn't required to redeploy outside the Palestinian population centers before elections are held,'' he said. ``At the same time ... general elections for the Palestinians should be held as soon as possible.''
Western diplomats and political observers believe that Rabin will choose the option that sticks closest to the letter of the Oslo agreement, but that he might find the need to spell out the final vision of the agreement irresistible.
``The process has proved to be remarkably resilient in the past,'' said a Western diplomat here close to the talks.
``If it survived the aftermath of the Hebron massacre in February, it can probably pull through now albeit in a modified form,'' the diplomat said.
``The [Oslo agreement] is sufficiently flexible to allow for re-interpretation and modification without abandoning the significant gains that have flowed from the Oslo agreement.''