Leading Article: Historic change, but not quite yet

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY had been billed as a day of history for the Palestinian people. It was to have witnessed the start of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area, and the modest dawn of a transitional era of Palestinian autonomy in those same zones. So the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat had agreed in their historic deal sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn in Washington on 13 September. But it was not to be. Negotiations in Cairo between the two sides failed to resolve some serious remaining differences. The moment of history was postponed for 10 days at least.

It is easy to understand the Palestinians' frustration, disappointment and anger. The initial agreement fell far short of their hopes, applying as it did to a fraction of what they had long hoped would become an independent Palestinian state. In their eyes, the September agreement was unequal and distressingly limited. Yet now they see the Israelis continuing to impose their view of how it should be interpreted. Naturally enough, the Palestinians fear they may have been duped, and that the Israelis may go back on their word.

Those fears are almost certainly groundless. Mr Rabin is a deeply serious and essentially principled (if sometimes ruthless) man. Once he has brought himself and his government to the very difficult point of concluding a deal with an organisation long associated in Israeli eyes with terrorism, he will fulfil it. Outstanding problems will be overcome, though not at the expense of Israel's security.

Admittedly it is surprising that the negotiators left so late the final delineation of the area around Jericho to be included in the initial phase of the agreement, one of the current sticking points. Disagreement over the level of Israeli protection for Jewish settlements in the affected areas was more predictable, as was the dispute over control of border crossings between Israel and Egypt, and Jordan and Jericho.

The border control issue goes to the heart both of Israel's anxieties and of Yasser Arafat's hopes. The PLO leader is naturally anxious to create as many symbols as possible of Palestinian sovereignty. Border controls are an obvious candidate - even if they were never part of the agreement. But the Israelis have no intention of giving up their control and their de facto sovereignty. They will never agree to anything that makes it easier for terrorists to infiltrate either Israel proper or the West Bank and Gaza.

As Mr Arafat will doubtless complain on his visit to London today, the delay will weaken his position vis-a-vis extremists who reject the whole deal. That is unfortunate. Yet providing the Israelis move fast to fulfil their side of the bargain once agreement is reached, this week's alarm and despond should soon give way to a real sense of historic change.