EVERY once in a while there is a turning point that is so breathtaking all one can do is sit back, take a deep breath and hope one is not dreaming. This last week in the Middle East marked one of those corners.
One can recognize the caveats Yes, Israel-Syria talks have stalled until later this fall. Yes, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have agreed on autonomy for the Gaza Strip and for the little city of Jericho, but assassination and civil war could be the outcome even of this agreement. Still one must say, "Finally!"
On top of that is the delightful conspiracy of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO leader Yasser Arafat meeting secretly in Norway for (count them) 18 months! Add the fact that neither side told even American Secretary of State Warren Christopher about the meetings until Aug. 6 in Jerusalem because they feared the Clinton administration was so pro-Israel it would gum up the works.
Finally, throw in that the Israelis were afraid many in the American Jewish community would come out too early against the agreement because many leaders are hard-line, no-compromise Likudniks -- and you have a scenario that the best playwright could not have dreamed up!
And, of course, you have PLO chief Arafat and Foreign Minister Peres, both of whom have been constantly portrayed by the press and the diplomats in recent years as "losers . . . has-beens . . . weak-kneed men . . . finished . . . jokes . . . over-the-hill," who have just outsmarted the whole world with negotiations that have brought the Arab-Israeli conflict to its first real moment of hope in 100 years.
This agreement, which has now been ratified by the Israeli Cabinet, is a "deal" that is both fair and reasonable. It gives the Palestinians the right finally to show how they can govern themselves in two key places in order to provide examples for expanded autonomy elsewhere.
Anyone who has not seen Gaza would not be able to visualize what hell-on-earth can really be like. It is a small piece of sand and brush on the Mediterranean with filthy "apartment buildings" that are surrounded by hillocks of garbage and gaunt-eyed children given to knifing "traitors" in city yards. Jericho, on the other hand, is a charming little oasis-city on the West Bank, with plenty of biblical history and an unobstructed view of Jordan.
In short, the two of them together will give the world a good idea of how two very different Palestinian areas can govern themselves. As for those naysayers who already are saying that this agreement will only bring forth another wave of Hamas, or "rejection front" (anti-PLO) terrorism, the answer is that if the agreement is effective, and if it becomes rooted in Palestinian society, terrorism might break out sporadically but it would not have the roots for the long run.
Last November in Tunisia, I was told by Russian diplomats how dire were the PLO's circumstances, particularly financially. They told me that the organization was virtually broke, that its once-enormous investments now could pay only for the expenses of the "peace talks" being brokered by Washington, and that the major negotiator, Abu Mazen, even then was meeting secretly with Israeli officials once a month in Morocco. By then, the only money the PLO was getting was from Western and thus more moderate Palestinians, with whom PLO leaders met once a month in Geneva.
That new history, which was running directly parallel to the Norway talks and implicitly backing them up, was in turn based upon the dramatic and deep changes wrought by the gulf war of 1991. By backing Iraq, Arafat gave up in effect all of his payments from the gulf states and from Saudi Arabia. That led directly to the financial situation today, where the PLO has had to close offices, shut down its embassies and leave Palestinian officials (who formerly lived high off the hog) without even a pittance in salaries.
The gulf war equally -- and providentially -- marked a moment of change for Israel. By the time of the war, the leading economists of Israel were telling me that the Israeli-Palestini conflict was destroying Israel's economic future. Because of the seemingly endless conflict, there was no foreign investment at all, there was no effective way to absorb and give jobs to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who were flocking to Israel, and Israel was getting none of the high-tech industries for which its population was so well-trained. In short, one of the most highly educated and able populations in the world was falling behind far lesser nations due to its obsession with keeping down its neighbors.
Finally, factor Iran and Islamic fundamentalism into both the PLO and Israeli equations. After the gulf war, when Iran stepped up aid and sustenance to radical Islamists from Algeria to Egypt to the Hamas group on the West Bank, suddenly Palestinian
nationalism seemed far less a worry to Israel than Islamic fundamentalism. For its part, the PLO feared rightly that, as nothing happened in the negotiating sphere, the extremist Hamas was taking over the PLO in the occupied territories.
Thus were both sides finally emboldened to throw off the shackles of hatred and the idea of the "inevitability" of endless Middle East war.
Also worthy of note here is the stubbornness of President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. For without their tenacious work on the Middle East peace, none of this would have happened. If they had not pushed the peace negotiations, the parallel track in Norway would never have happened. Without their holding up the $10 billion in loan guarantees to the right-wing and no-negotiations Likud government, this Labor government would never have come to power.
Interestingly enough, two prominent players used the same word in comments last week. PLO negotiator Hannan Ashrawi spoke of the causes of the conflict now being "unraveled." Israeli statesman Abba Eban said the two were "unraveling" an untenable solution. I suspect what they meant was that they were unraveling the past in order to weave a more just future.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.