The performance at the White House yesterday, avidly watched throughout the Arab world and Israel, became an indelible fact in the Middle East proceedings. Yasser Arafat extended his hand to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who shook it, and to President Clinton, who clasped it.
Mr. Rabin, with no glib enthusiasm but rather tragic solemnity and Lincolnian eloquence, made his personal peace, which no Israeli hawk can demean. Russia was brought back into the Soviet-originated role of peace co-sponsor to symbolize world commitment to this enterprise. None of this can be retracted. We are all witnesses.
The importance of rapid economic development to make the agreement between Israel and the PLO work, which was previously made clear in the text of the agreement negotiated in Norway, was restated. So was the urgency of international and especially U.S. support. Foreign Ministers Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO were equally emphatic.
President Clinton, embroiled in domestic policy battles, had done nothing to hatch this historic settlement except to get left out of the loop in Oslo. But Israel and the PLO find him essential to make it work. And so they gave him, just when in domestic matters he most needs it, a triumph.
To those with historic perspective, the Palestinian side has gained nothing that was not offered in better terms by the United Nations in 1947, and spurned; nothing that was not offered by Israel's triumphant army (Yitzhak Rabin commanding) better terms in 1967, and rejected.
But what Palestinians of the occupation and the diaspora saw was something else: Mr. Arafat at the White House in Bedouin headdress and military uniform as the equal of a prime minister, speaking in his own language for others to translate. A people who have believed that the world denied their existence were given incontrovertible proof that this existence is acknowledged the highest level in the most powerful quarters.
There will be setbacks, stalemates, walkouts, bombings, assassinations. But a powerful momentum is created that is likely to tip Palestinian opinion in its favor, and Israeli opinion in its favor.
The most difficult questions are postponed to the status talks that do not begin for two years, when more goodwill is expected than yet exists. These are Jerusalem, the Palestinian diaspora, the Israeli settlements and borders. What has been declared is that the impossibility of agreement on each of these today is no reason to postpone cooperation on what can be agreed. Eventual compromise is made more likely if not inevitable.
Everyone who took part in yesterday's exercise at the White House can take deep satisfaction in a job well done. From this day forward, peace in the Middle East is much closer than it was before these extraordinary events unfolded.