At last! After 20 years of pushing for an "open ended" interim arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians, Washington seems finally to have realized that confidence can only be built on this track if the parties have a clear picture of the destination.
That was the model - the phased implementation of steps toward a known end-point - that successfully brought peace to the Israeli-Egyptian front in 1978, and between Israel and Jordan in 1994. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are to be commended on having finally - if far too late - seen the light on this.
Kudos to Mrs. Albright, too, for having restated that the US considers that the final status on this track (as on the Egyptian and Jordanian tracks) should be based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and their principle of trading "land for peace."
Continued active endorsement of this principle will require all the secretary's considerable political smarts, as well as the firm engagement of the president. They will need to work with the pro-peace forces in the American Jewish community to explain why only "land for peace," and not the expansionist vision of Israel's current ruling coalition, has any hope of bringing lasting peace to the residents of the Middle East.
Beyond "land for peace," a number of other principles are central to any workable resolution of tough final-status issues like Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jewish settlements. These principles include:
* Contiguity. If the long-term status is to be viable, a Palestinian entity has to enjoy the maximum degree of unimpeded access, both among Palestinian-ruled areas, and between those areas and Jordan and Egypt. In a long-term peace, Israel has no reason to hold passages between the West Bank Palestinian cities. Nor to interpose itself between the Palestinians and Jordan or Egypt - with both of which Israel has well-tested security arrangements. "Fencing in" the Palestinians just increases tensions.
* Mutuality. A nation's security is never a one-way street. The Israelis cannot base their own long-term security on policies that undercut the security and daily needs of their Palestinian neighbors.
Recent polls show that a majority of Jewish Israelis (as well as the 17 percent of Israelis who are ethnic Palestinians) seem to understand this. President Clinton needs to put "mutuality" into what he says about security in this region, too.
* Openness. Washington's prolonged avoidance of final-status talks has resulted in just what Likud's hard-liners aimed at all along: implantation of more than 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. The native Palestinian population still outnumbers them there by 7 or 8 to 1. But still, the two groups are seriously intermingled, and until now the settlers have continued to enjoy a very privileged life-style on the land. It would be hard for any Israeli government to uproot them all (though Menachem Begin did just that in Sinai, in 1981). A certain amount of boundary redrawing, as well as incentives for returnees, could bring many present settlers back under Israeli rule. But those who remain in Palestinian-ruled areas need to know that the privileges they have enjoyed cannot continue in the final status. Like white South Africans, they can stay where they are only if they accept majority rule. The settlers and the Palestinians all need to be open to such sharing.
If openness (of mind as well as of borders) is one of the keys to success, then resolving the future of Jerusalem can be transformed from an obstacle into a real opportunity for envisioning what the broader long-term agreement will look like. Jerusalem is already a bicultural city, with roughly two-thirds Hebrew speakers and one-third Arabic speakers. Some of the city's Jewish and Palestinian residents have already brainstormed ways its governance as an open city could be shared between their communities. Palestinians insist that it house their national capital, as Israelis also claim it for theirs.
Why not? Why not have Jerusalem as the capital city of two states at peace - an open city that can be a physical and cultural link-point for citizens of both states - and a beacon for Jews and Arabs from further afield, too?
The possibilities are huge! Restoring a sense of such possibility to the talks is what the president and Albright should do as they lead the parties towards a viable long-term peace.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.