That peace has been a long time coming. Israel has fought six wars since 1948: the war of independence, the 1956 Suez campaign, the 1967 Six-day war; the 1969-70 war of attrition across the Suez Canal; the 1973 war; the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It has lost over 19,000 dead. Countless peace plans gather dust in the archives of foreign ministries around the world. Millions of hours have been expended by the best brains in many countries' diplomatic services to find a solution. The region has threatened to embroil the world in nuclear war (in 1973). The world's economic system was virtually destroyed by the oil weapons deployed by Arab producer states. Palestinians were identified in the popular consciousness with acts of terrorism; murdering Israeli athletes and schoolchildren, or hijacking civilian aircraft. Only later were they seen as a people under occupation trying to right a historic grievance.
Yet the area has not been an unmitigated disaster. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state of Israel was the fulfilment of a dream, the creation of a refuge, a state, for the ingathering of the exiles. Early Zionist propaganda portrayed the Jews as a people without land, and Palestine as a land without people. The only trouble was, Palestine did already have a population. The struggle between those who came to call themselves Palestinians and the Israelis stemmed from then.
Resolution of the Palestinian issue always seemed to be the most intractable of the host of problems confronting Israel. Agreements with Arab states pose no metaphysical problems. The questions to be settled are about demarcation of boundaries, of security arrangements. So it went against all conventional wisdom that it was the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel that first reached an agreement, rather than Israel and Jordan or Syria. And as Mr Rabin said back in September, the key was timing. Both he and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, have been fighting their battles for nearly half a century. Mr Rabin as chief of staff laid the plans for the 1967 war which led to the occupation from which Israel is now set to withdraw. Mr Arafat was one of the founders of the mainstream Fatah movement within the PLO in the Sixties. Neither of these two old warriors had radically changed their views. But circumstances - as in South Africa - had changed. So yesterday these two men, the leaders of their respective peoples, finally signed an agreement. For the first time, Israel is committed to withdrawing from territories occupied in 1967. And for the first time, Palestinians will be taking charge of their own affairs.
Yesterday's agreement is only the beginning. But it is one further step in an irreversible process. For some years the PLO leaders have renounced their claim to all the historic land of Palestine, and accepted the presence of Israel as one of two states between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. And the Israeli government was elected on a platform of making peace on the basis of renouncing territory.
Few expect the agreement to spell the end of violence or, in this sad land, an end to wars. But the agreement goes some way to meeting the aspirations of both sides, the Palestinians to run their own affairs, and the Israelis to live in peace and security.
There are those who argue that the Palestinians have only obtained a limited amount of self-rule in a part of the territory currently occupied by Israel. That is true. But they misunderstand Mr Rabin's intentions. He is not motivated by any liberal respect for the democratic rights of the Palestinians. Nor has he been worried about warnings, after 1967, that Israel had gained land but lost its soul. No. Mr Rabin is obsessed by security. And he has said that Israeli troops can no longer spend three-quarters of their time in policing the occupied territories.
Mr Rabin wants above all to divest himself of the burden of administering one and a half million unhappy Palestinians. The agreement is not a test of Palestinian-Israeli co-existence. Rather, it is the opposite. It was a shotgun marriage which brought them together in 1967. Both seek a divorce, but wish to part on speaking terms. The challenge will be to maintain the momentum to complete the process.
Annika Savill's 'Inside File' returns next Thursday.Reuse content