THE go-slow pace of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's intertwined ''peace process'' and reelection strategies has been premised on the belief that his election prospects, and those of his party, would be enhanced by saying and doing nothing that could seriously upset any significant Israeli constituency prior to the 1996 Knesset elections. This strategy has been pursued without concern for its catastrophic effects on Palestinian attitudes toward a ''peace process'' that does not appear to them to be leading anywhere.
With the current ''peace process'' stalled on the brink of an explosive collapse and with the Labor Party trailing disastrously in the polls, the bankruptcy of this strategy is clear. Paradoxically, the way is now open for a dramatic acceleration of the actual achievement of peace.
Purely personal and partisan political calculations now demand that the Israeli government promptly begin ''permanent status'' negotiations with the Palestinians with a view to reaching a true peace agreement before the 1996 elections and to making those elections a straight choice between peace and renewed confrontation. Faced with such a choice, Israeli voters might well accept terms that opinion polls show them rejecting today.
When Israelis and Palestinians express their disillusionment with the fruits of ''peace talks,'' they are victims of a fundamental semantic error and a dangerous political misperception. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have not yet begun. The Declaration of Principles signed in September 1993 provides that negotiations on the essential issues on which peace depends (Jerusalem, settlers, refugees, and borders) are to begin ''as soon as possible'' but not later than a date which, because of delays in implementing the declaration, has become May 4, 1996.
It is widely assumed that Mr. Rabin plans to refuse to begin true peace talks at least until May 1996 and, if reelected, to drag them out at least until the May 1999 deadline for their conclusion. But no peace process could survive so long. Each day that passes without any progress toward peace (as opposed to a ''peace process'' that decreasing minorities on both sides believe could ever lead to peace) destroys confidence, feeds frustration and despair, and encourages violence.
Negotiations on ''interim status'' were always destined to be more complex and difficult than true peace talks. The negotiators are asked to start together down a road to ... God only knows where, since they aren't allowed to discuss where the road leads and everyone fears the worst. They are asked to take steps forward together when each side wishes to go in a different direction and arrive at a different destination.
Everyone knows that any concession made in an ''interim status'' agreement will have an impact on ''permanent status.'' All the permanent status problems are thus added to all the extraordinarily awkward aspects of structuring coexistence during an ''interim period'' in which Israeli settlers and military forces are to remain in the occupied territories.
IN these circumstances, it is remarkable that, since September 1993, any interim status agreements have been reached at all. Yet the further interim status negotiations that lie ahead promise to be even more difficult. It is time to call a halt to this ill-conceived, confidence-destroying, and nearly impossible exercise and to start true peace talks.
The critical problems that must be resolved if a true Israeli-Palestinian peace is ever to be achieved are already well known. There is little reason to believe that the passage of time will make these problems easier to resolve and ample evidence that it aggravates them and will continue to do so.
If the most peace-oriented leadership that the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have ever had (and, if they fail to achieve peace, are ever likely to have) cannot advance their deadline and reach a true peace agreement between now and next year's Israeli elections, then peace is simply not possible. What are the arguments -- practical, ethical, or electoral -- for refusing even to try? Israeli-Palestinian peace is not inevitable. It is not a question of ''sooner or later.'' It may well be a question of ''sooner or never.''
If Rabin offered his people peace and they accepted, he would be Israel's greatest statesman and hero. If he offered them peace and they turned it down, he would at least go down in history as a leader who tried to do the right thing and dared to truly lead. If he continues with the policy of procrastination, it is certain that he will be defeated electorally and will go down in history as the man who threw away Israel's best-ever chance for peace.