Leading Article: A peace process that defies the odds

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The Independent Online
SO FAR, those who predicted a breakdown have been proved wrong and those who continued to believe that the peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was irreversible have been largely vindicated. Faith was most severely tested after the massacre on 25 February by Baruch Goldstein of worshippers in a Hebron mosque. But, after a gap, formal talks between the two sides were resumed, and now, at last, the first moves are being made towards implementation of last September's historic accord between the occupiers and the occupied.

In a symbolically important development yesterday, a group of Palestinian exiles and deportees crossed the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank from Jordan to play their part in preparing for self-rule in Jericho, while a similar group left Cairo for the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military, meanwhile, continued to pull out its heavy equipment from both zones. It is unlikely that the occupying forces will have fully withdrawn by the designated deadline of 13 April, but they appear to be genuinely determined that once the moment for handover is at hand, they will be able to pull out at high speed.

Those who assumed that the slaughter in the Hebron mosque would achieve its goal of derailing the peace process underestimated the sea change that has come over the Israelis. The Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, did not sign a deal with the PLO out of any sense of guilt or belief in the principle of self-determination. He did so because he felt it was in Israel's best interests.

It was always likely, even certain, that those on both sides who rejected the deal would seek to scupper it by violent means. But since its implementation was also in the Palestinians' interests, unsatisfactory though it was for them in many ways, the logic of pressing on was inexorable. The parallel with South Africa holds good: the violence there has been far worse, but there has been no serious thought of postponing this month's first multiracial elections.

A good deal more blood - both Arab and Israeli - will inevitably be spilt in the occupied territories in coming weeks and months, not least because of the bitterness unleashed by Baruch Goldstein's mass murder. It was a weakness of last year's Oslo accords that they left the question of Israeli settlers to the end of the withdrawal process. To have tackled it earlier would have been politically impossible for Mr Rabin. No one knows how complete Israeli withdrawal will eventually be. But it is to the credit of both sides that the process is visibly under way.