Leading Article: Middle East momentum

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The Independent Online
THE recently elected Labour government of Israel offers a unique opportunity for the Palestinian people. The Palestinians should move swiftly to take advantage of it. Consider the framework within which they are operating. The Bush administration has placed a Middle East settlement high on its immediate political agenda. For Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, a settlement is less important. As President, Mr Clinton would be preoccupied with domestic affairs and, very probably, with crises in the former Yugoslavia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. In any case, it would take time for a new administration to define its Middle East policy. As for the Rabin government, it was elected only by a very narrow majority. If it fails to achieve a relatively rapid breakthrough in negotiations with its Arab neighbours, it is unlikely that a successor administration would be more accommodating to Arab aspirations.

The United States - as sponsor of the current peace talks - therefore has the task of persuading the Palestinians to accept this proposition. This means advising the Arabs to negotiate the best possible deal now, and to postpone demands that could cause the unstable edifice to come crashing down.

Such is the essence of the message that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, brought yesterday to President George Bush in Kennebunkport. Mr Rabin was asking the US to release dollars 10bn in loan guarantees that had been held up in an effort to force the previous Likud government to adopt a more accommodating position. Mr Rabin had reason to expect a sympathetic hearing.

The Israeli prime minister's request was reasonable. He has sent most of the right signals, after years in which the Israeli government appeared to glory in its intransigence. There can, Mr Rabin says, be Palestinian autonomy within nine months, but only if the Palestinians do not ask for east Jerusalem to be included in the deal and do not ask at this stage how autonomous the Arab entity will be. Mr Rabin has promised to suspend work on the majority of new settlements in the occupied territories. But work on those with security implications will continue, as will those in the former Arab east Jerusalam.

Israeli citizens will in future be allowed to make individual contact with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation without fear of imprisonment. (This will, incidentally, make it easier eventually to end the pretence that those negotiating on behalf of the people of Palestine are doing so on their own account.) But the Israelis insist that decriminalisation is not the first step to recognition of the PLO as a legitimate political force. The PLO remains, according to Israeli ministers, a terrorist organisation.

It would be easy for the Palestinians to concentrate on the omissions and inadequacies of the Israeli position. For example, they might insist Israel will have to accept that it is for the Palestinians to choose their leaders; similarly, Israel must spell out what is meant by autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and why Jerusalem should remain the exclusive property of the Jewish state. All this may be true but it ignores the reality, which is that within months the momentum generated by the Gulf victory could finally be dissipated. The Palestinians would be ill-advised to drag their feet.