THERE is an old and wise rule of thumb about Arab-Israeli relations. If they seem to be getting better, just wait a while and they'll almost always get worse.
Yet in the current round of talks in Washington, Israelis and Palestinians are actually making progress for the first time. And while Syrians and Israelis haven't gone forward, they haven't gone backward either.
Two words explain this fragile and unlikely state of affairs: Islamic fundamentalism.
Where war and the threat of war have failed to overcome mutual Arab-Israeli hatreds, fundamentalist fanatics have made peace look almost appetizing. President Assad of Syria fears their resurgence in his country. Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization fear the growing power of fundamentalists. So does Israel.
Clinton administration officials have put this common fear to good use in skillfully shepherding Syria, Israel and the Palestinians toward common ground. Their strategy was to persuade the warring parties that to beat the fundamentalists they had to act together and give their people the one thing the fundamentalists could not -- peace.
So the Clinton officials began maneuvering. They cajoled the Saudis into giving humanitarian aid to PLO-oriented Palestinians the West Bank and Gaza, thus allowing them to compete with fundamentalist relief efforts. But the Saudis did not reopen their money line to Yasser Arafat's PLO, thus cleverly strengthening the more reasonable local Palestinians against their harder-line PLO masters.
Clinton Mideast experts also urged Israel to buck up these same local Palestinians by making conciliatory public gestures. The idea was to make the locals look good against both their local fundamentalist competitors and the PLO. Israel obliged in many ways. Wednesday the U.S. and others pledged $20 million to make the same point.
Clinton officials also may have played a part in arranging the recent love fest between Mr. Assad and Mr. Arafat. Heaven for these rivals would be to see the other burn in hell, largely because both want to control the Palestinian movement and because they've been killing off each other's henchmen for years. But on this occasion, Mr. Assad permitted Mr. Arafat to kiss him seven times.
The Syrian strongman and the Clinton team understand Arab political logic very well. The Palestinians won't feel free to negotiate seriously with Israel unless Mr. Arafat blesses their efforts. He won't do that unless he is given some new acceptance and stature by Mr. Assad. And Mr. Assad won't move ahead on his talks with Israel unless the Palestinians first make visible progress in their own negotiations with the Israelis.
Surprising to all, Israelis and Palestinians have made just such progress in Washington. Israel has shown flexibility in offering the Palestinians much greater scope for interim self-rule. The Palestinian delegation has demonstrated remarkable pragmatism, for the first time, in discussing Israel's proposals.
Negotiators on both sides are emitting noises. Wednesday they agreed to extend their talks for another week. It's possible, they say, that they could sign a declaration of principles on self-rule.
This, in turn, should make it possible for Mr. Assad to demonstrate new flexibility as well. He wants Israel to pledge "full withdrawal" from the Golan Heights, which it won't do until Syria is willing to define the "full peace" Israel demands in return.
What Israelis and Americans are looking for now is a clear, unambiguous and public declaration from Mr. Assad that he is ready for full peace with Israel. So far he's simply proclaimed his support for "the peace of the brave," whatever that means. And that's not enough.
So near and yet so far from agreement. If the Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis wait, things will get worse, as usual.
Yet something new hovers over their haggling -- radical fundamentalism. Their common fear of fundamentalists may actually exceed their mutual hatred -- and open the door to agreement. It is a proposition, a possibility, worth testing by President Clinton's bold and personal intervention.
Leslie H. Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times.