Leading Article: Hand of history will try to force a deal in the Middle East

EXPERIENCE HAS taught us that we should never be too optimistic about moves towards peace in the Middle East. Six years ago this month, the Oslo accords were agreed between the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, murdered two years later because of his support for peace. It has taken six years to get back to anything even approaching the atmosphere that then prevailed. But yesterday Israel and the Palestinians finally moved towards a deal that would make it possible to implement a version of the post-Oslo deal agreed at Wye in Maryland last year, but never implemented. With luck, Mr Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, will sign the new deal in Egypt today - in the presence of the self-described "handmaiden" to the peace process, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The fact that we are back to deal-signing instead of deal-destroying serves as a reminder that history has a way of forcing itself through. Benjamin Netanyahu, the little-lamented former Israeli leader, did much to slow the process down. But even he was forced back to the negotiating table. We must hope that Mr Barak's various duckings and weavings recently do not indicate that he will prove quite so obstinate.

In many respects, Israel seems to hold strong cards. It can afford to be stubborn in refusing to give ground, since the Palestinians have little to give in return. Mr Arafat has no military options. Economically, the position of two-and-a-half million Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza is worse than it was before the Oslo peace process in 1993. But Israel would be misguided if it thought that, by holding out, it can improve its own position. Yasser Arafat, the one-time bogeyman, is now the Israelis' best partner in doing a deal. There are plenty of Palestinians baying for his blood, because Oslo and Wye delivered so little, so late. If Mr Arafat cannot deliver to his own people, then the resentments will lead to more explosions. Conversely, a generous Israeli policy, including removal of the Jewish settlements that remain a thorn in the Palestinian flesh, could open up possibilities for peaceful co-existence.

The immediate sticking-point in recent days was the number of prisoners to be released. Palestinians argued that Israel acted in extreme bad faith when released prisoners turned out to be common criminals, rather than the political prisoners that the Palestinians had hoped for. The Israelis, in turn, did not wish to release those who had "Jewish blood on their hands". The numbers being argued over were small: Israel was offering to release 356 prisoners; the Palestinians were holding out for 400, a reduction from the 650 that the Palestinians had originally demanded.

There must be a mutual understanding that a benefit for one side should not necessarily be regarded as a loss for the other side. Under the terms of the Wye agreement, 95 per cent of the Gaza Strip and 43 per cent of the West Bank, with a population of about two million, will be under Palestinian rule. Mr Barak has been eager to spread the Israeli withdrawals over the next six months. None the less, the trend is clear, towards the international recognition of a small but independent Palestinian state. It is in the interests of the Israelis, and not just of the Palestinians, that the foundations of that state should be just. Even the safe passage of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank remains subject to the whim of the Israeli authorities, so that the extent of future freedom of movement remains unclear.

In Northern Ireland, despite all the current difficulties, the principle of mutually beneficial concessions - swallowing something painful, for the greater good - has not been entirely lost from sight. In the Middle East, by contrast, it frequently seems to be forgotten or ignored. There is the danger, too, that Israel will pay more attention to relations with Syria than to full implementation of a deal with the Palestinians. Syria called yesterday for peace talks between Israel and Syria to be resumed, in advance of an expected visit by Ms Albright to Damascus today. Above all, the Syrians want a revival of the deal that they claim Yitzhak Rabin agreed to - including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The Israelis appear to hope that if they can reach a deal with their powerful neighbour, then concessions to the Palestinians will be less important.

This suggests, however, that they have misunderstood the best prospects for stability for Israel itself. Syria is powerful. But a deal with Damascus will not bring an end to bombs in Israeli cafes. That can come only if the Palestinian resentments are met head on. For the moment, that may seem a distant prospect. But the agreement that could be signed today will mark at least half a step forward.

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