THE recurrent attacks on Israeli buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem dramatize the fragility of the Middle East peace process. The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are both under tremendous internal pressure to suspend the talks on Palestinian self-rule. But the major beneficiaries of any such suspension would be the militant Islamic group Hamas and other opponents of peace.
To their credit, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had promised to redouble their efforts to reach an agreement by the second anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles, Sept. 13.
Their challenge is to seize the initiative away from the opponents of the peace process. To do so, they must pursue an active policy that undercuts the opposition rather than a reactive posture that allows the process to be dominated by diversionary tactics. The best way to accomplish this is to set an early date for Palestinian elections.
The situation today is extremely tense for the people of both nations. It seems to Israelis as if they have traded one security threat (full-scale war) for another (terrorism). It is hardly reassuring to them that Arab-Israeli wars have claimed 10 times more casualties than terrorist acts. In fact many more Israelis (bus passengers, often children and the elderly) have been lost to terrorism in the two years since the White House ceremony than in the five years of the intifadah (uprising). The front line of violence is now everywhere - not only in the West Bank, but also in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
For Palestinians, responses such as the imposition of curfews, closing off of territories, and delays in the release of political prisoners only heighten their sense of alienation and frustration. Meanwhile, a ''Jewish intifadah'' of resistance to the peace process is being carried out by settlers and other rejectionist Israelis. If the peace process continues to drag on with little direct benefit for the average Palestinian, opponents may well gain broader support.
There are, however, a few signs of hope in this bleak picture. Mr. Arafat is given credit in Israeli official circles for his commitment to identifying and punishing the perpetrators of terrorist acts. And the Palestinian National Authority's recent expression of condolences for the victims of the latest rounds of terrorism highlights a newfound sensitivity to the human emotions of grief and sympathy that are so essential for healing in this protracted conflict.
Notwithstanding the deep divisions within the Palestinian leadership, there is broad consensus for a popular election. Palestinians across the spectrum see elections as an important step in the process of nation-building and democratization. Such a step could serve many purposes: help unify the West Bank and Gaza; bring the Palestinians of Jerusalem into the institutionalization process; and create a legitimate and accountable system of government that respects civil liberties and human rights. An elected government could also provide the accountability required by skeptical aid-donor countries. Early elections would simultaneously provide an opportunity for Arafat's opponents to compete on their own merits and marginalize those who maintain a rejectionist stance.
The political futures of the current Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) are inextricably linked. Prolonged delays in reaching tangible gains from the peace process will further embolden Palestinian opponents of the peace process. This in turn will make it increasingly difficult for Rabin to fend off the domestic challenge from his Likud opponents, who seek the opportunity to take a more heavy-handed approach to the Palestinians.
There is still time to tap into the reservoir of good will that exists among the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Meaningful steps forward, taken now, can benefit moderate leaders on both sides. On the other hand, delay could be catastrophic. The economic situation for the Palestinians continues to get worse, breeding further discontent. As Israeli elections draw nearer, it is apparent that the Israeli electorate can be swayed by Palestinian statements and actions. Thus, an overlap of Israeli and Palestinian elections could adversely affect both Labor and Arafat's ''left wing'' of the Palestinian political spectrum.
THIS opening must be taken advantage of immediately. Israel and the PNA should quickly reach a negotiated agreement, which will set the date and terms for Palestinian elections. Failing that, the Palestinians should unilaterally implement their right to democratic elections.
It has often been said that the peace process is irreversible, and perhaps this is true in the big historical picture. But in the land of the prophets, the follies of history have been well documented. The peace and electoral processes are intimately interconnected. The strengthening of democracy in both governments is a strong guarantee for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, for, as is often noted and as the lessons of other nations show, democratically elected regimes rarely wage war against one another.