Israel's new deal with its arch-enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization, confirms the Middle East's reputation for surprises.
But is it a real breakthrough? If so, why now? And what next?
The answer to the first question is yes. It is a real breakthrough, and like most such events carries both great promise and great peril. It has come about now because of very special, perhaps fleeting, circumstances, most importantly the weakness of the Palestinians and the PLO. And whether this is the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict depends not only on Israel and the PLO but also the United States.
The latest twist in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, indeed the entire peace process, can be traced directly to the demise of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq by an American-led coalition. These two events collapsed the Arab Rejectionist Front, consisting of Syria, Iraq and the PLO, that had successfully opposed an expansion of the 1978 Camp David accords. The United States now held, as Anwar el Sadat used to say, "90 percent of the cards."
Syria's President Hafez el Assad, foreseeing the shape of things to come, had already taken the precaution of joining Desert Storm. The PLO was not so fortunate. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's policy has long been to secure the rewards of martyrdom without ever having to suffer the actual experience. But the Palestinians, weakened by four years of intifada against Israel, were struck a near-mortal blow when Mr. Arafat took Iraq's side. This cost the PLO the vital financial support of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
These developments forced Syria and the Palestinians into public negotiations with Israel, not because they wanted to make peace with Israel, but because they wanted to make peace with the United States. The Madrid peace process that began in October 1991 therefore held plenty of spectacle but lacked an essential ingredient: mutual conviction by Israel and its Arab counterparts that the oth- er side really wanted to make a deal.
This problem was compounded in the Palestinian case. Israel had insisted that the Palestinian delegation be drawn only from the West Bank and Gaza, where the PLO was outlawed. Israel's Likud government was betting these "insider" Palestinians would prove more accepting than the PLO of the limited self-governing transitional authority that Israel was prepared to negotiate.
The Palestinian delegation, however, was paralyzed almost immediately by a multi-sided struggle:
* often against each other in personal rivalries;
* sometimes against Mr. Arafat, who undercut them consistently by insisting that thorny issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, be raised;
* and always against the Palestinian rejectionists, both the fundamentalist Hamas and the factions sheltering in Damascus.
The negotiations might have drifted into irrelevance except for the Israeli election in 1992 that brought Yitzhak Rabin to power, as the Labor Party out-polled the more hawkish Likud. He proposed a quick agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian track because Israel and the Palestinians needed relief from the intifada and from each other.
But Syria feared such a deal, and Mr. Assad moved to take control of the pace and scope of the peace process, first by uttering encouraging words about peace and second by allowing the PLO factions in Damascus to threaten violence against the Palestinian delegation. It remained unclear, however, whether Mr. Assad was prepared to take further steps, such as defining what he meant by peace in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
This flurry of activity, too, drifted into stalemate as the Clinton administration took office. There were several cycles of violence to remind the parties of the alternative. The PLO, especially, was running out of time. Broke, fearful that Mr. Assad might reach a deal on his own, losing ground to Hamas in the territories, Mr. Arafat was ripe for a gamble.
He found Mr. Rabin, head of an accident-prone coalition, frustrated over Palestinian indecision and plagued by Palestinian violence, a man also ready for a gamble.
And then there was the American contribution. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's readiness to "shuttle" between Syria and Israel probably convinced the PLO leader that he had better betray Mr. Assad before Mr. Assad betrayed him.
The Israeli-PLO negotiations therefore represent a breakthrough in this crucial sense: The two parties, by this act, make clear that they really want a deal and that they are ready to run big risks to make one.
Some of the risks are reflected in the outline of the deal itself, which is limited to a five-year period and does not address the final status of the territories. The PLO has accepted much of Israel's concept of self-government: Jerusalem is excluded; Israeli settlers are excluded; and Israel retains control of security. The PLO will have to abandon both terrorism and the intifada.
And Israel has taken a further precaution. By agreeing to Gaza and Jericho as the initial experiments for Palestinian self-government, Israel will find out whether it is workable in areas that risk neither Israeli security nor many Israeli settlers. It is "peace by a piece" at the start.
But Mr. Arafat has his price. Israel makes him legitimate. He has been promised money for development projects. And the PLO (( will gain control of actual territory in both Gaza and Jericho, land lost to Israel in 1967. Having exhausted all of his alternatives, Mr. Arafat has now turned to Israel to be rescued. And, to a limited degree, Mr. Rabin has agreed to rescue him. This is a gamble Israel may soon regret.
How will the bets pay off? Yitzhak Rabin will look like a loser if Gaza, a bad place for political experiments, turns into a Beirut, or if the currently quiet Jericho area becomes a hotbed of violent nationalists. Mr. Arafat, a master of evasion, has never been famous for keeping his promises.
A failure of Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho would leave Israel no choice but to abandon the self-government formula and the Israeli people no choice but to elect a Likud government. On the other hand, a success might make a push toward an independent Palestinian state irresistible even if it still runs contrary to Israeli, Jordanian and U.S. interests. So these are high stakes.
And that brings us finally to the United States. What role has the United States played in this sudden turn of events? Is it in our interest to foster an agreement? And what should President Bill Clinton do now?
The answer to the first is that the United States had very little to do with the secret Israeli-PLO diplomacy. Something very significant happened without the United States making it happen. And this is a deal which by American standards (and even pre-deal Israeli standards) is second best, because it would have been better not to rescue Mr. Arafat if there were an alternative.
Yet the United States cannot be more Israeli than Israel when it comes to Israeli security. Like Jimmy Carter, who was surprised by Mr. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, Mr. Clinton should swiftly swallow his pride and realize that the United States can now play its historic role: to reduce the risks to Israel and the Palestinians as they negotiate the details of a deal that is far from done.
This will require money (not all should come from the United States) and promises. It will also require a strong stomach, because of the PLO's terrorist record, which includes the murder of American diplomats. The moral and political indictment of Mr. Arafat is so strong in both the United States and Israel that treating the PLO as a serious partner will require a firm grip on the nose.
There could also be a Syrian problem. Mr. Assad may attempt to frustrate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations through violence. His self-proclaimed leadership of the Palestinian cause has been damaged. Both the United States and Israel will have to make clear to him that he can expect little help on the Golan issue if he attempts to harm the Palestinians.
To sum up: Israel and the PLO have now convinced each other that they mean to do business. Their proposed plan of Palestinian self-government reflects Mr. Arafat's weakness and what appears to be limited risks by Israel. Israel's biggest risks come later if, having recovered some strength, Mr. Arafat then uses his newly-found legitimacy to expand his demands.
The United States has the opportunity to reduce the risks to these strange bedfellows as they gingerly try the mattress. A big part of that job will be to keep Syria on the straight and narrow toward its own agreement with Israel.
Harvey Sicherman is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He served as special assistant to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, as consultant to Secretary George Shultz and as a member of the policy planning staff of Secretary James A. Baker III. He is the author of "Palestiian Autonomy, Self-Government and Peace," published this year.