WASHINGTON -- With just two signatures, the historic signing of a foundation peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians yesterday opened the way to profound change throughout the Middle East but also far beyond that long-troubled region. From Baghdad to Beijing, the accord is almost certain to accelerate patterns of global change that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
For the Mideast, peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization could be a catalyst triggering other changes in leadership and systems of government, finally opening up a region that has obstinately held out against political pluralism.
For the world, the breakthrough -- coming after the end of communism in Europe, apartheid and minority rule in southern Africa and military dictatorships in much of Latin America -- adds intense pressure on holdouts around the globe.
The Mideast accord adds psychological and intangible political pressure on totalitarian states to consider change that will make their societies more compatible with the evolving set of global standards, many analysts say.
"There's now a sense that the 21st century is around the corner and that you can either be part of it -- which means being part of processes taking place globally -- or you'll be left behind with real crosses to be borne, as Bosnia is now bearing," says William Quandt, a Carter administration National Security Council staff member.
"If your economy is going to boom, then you have to be part of the world economy," Mr. Quandt says. "If your political system is going to be legitimate, then you have to allow participation. And if you're not going to waste your resources, then you have to have peace with your neighbors."
Agrees Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University political scientist and former U.N. observer in the Mideast, "Skeptics have argued that the end of the Cold War is back to the future, to a horrible period of internecine conflict and bloodshed. But today's dramatic handshake on the White House lawn offered a very different conclusion, and that is that the rules have changed the international scene.
"And while we may have tired of cliches like the New World Order, we really are living in a new age, when conflicts deemed long insoluble will yield to resolution, in an age when great power adversaries will see the wisdom of stability and peace, not in war."
To be sure, a host of major obstacles remain ahead -- some combination of which could -- yesterday's bright promise. Terrorism could increase, as extremists react to moderates trying to seize the balance of power. And Israelis and Palestinians must still work out such core issues as the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees.
"Unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, this process is still reversible," says Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President Bush.
As the peace process presses ahead, the most immediate regional impact is expected to be the marginalization of the remaining radicals, even among their supporters. The pact may, for example, do more to seal the fate of Iraq's Saddam Hussein than either military defeat in the Gulf War or the economic sanctions that followed. The dominant political winds blowing within the Mideast now leave virtually no room for rejectionists.
"It will definitely have an effect on hard-liners like Saddam and [Libya's Moammar] Gadhafi and maybe also Islamic fundamentalism which all fed off the Arab-Israeli dispute," says Mr. Scowcroft. "If the dispute is ended, it could even make fundamentalism a more benign force."
The Arab world's hard-liners are likely to be further challenged by the introduction of a nascent Palestinian government, which is considered likely to provide a new model for democratization. Many of the Palestinian institutions-in-exile are widely considered the most democratic in the region.
"I'm bullish about prospects for democratic institutions among Palestinians," says Richard Haass, National Security Council director for the Mideast in the Bush administration. "They're highly literate, bourgeois people in the positive sense of that word. I'm confident that democracy can take hold.
"And if it does, it'll have a powerful impact, by example but also because Palestinians are everywhere in the Arab world," Mr. Haass says. "So it's not an isolated example. And people throughout the Mideast are also going to be watching."
In general, what looked yesterday like the beginning of the end of the world's longest ongoing modern conflict also sends strong signals about aggression. Indeed, the sad side of the peace accord is that the two sides took so long -- and in the process so many lives -- when the basic land-for-peace formula has been on the table for a full generation.
"Today's events lend hope to those enmeshed in awful conflicts. For years, students of the Middle East thought that the Arab-Israeli conflict might be one without a solu- tion. But now it looks as if even seemingly intractable problems can yield to resolution when addressed in a wise diplomatic context," Mr. Nor- ton says.