Leading Article: Rabin's fragile opportunity

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THE Middle East peace process is taking off again. Its destination is still far from certain, but the thrust it has received from Yitzhak Rabin, the new Prime Minister of Israel, should take it further than ever before. When he assumed office last week he was already committed to giving up land for peace and achieving Palestinian autonomy within nine months. In his first speech he made a moving appeal to Israelis to overcome their sense of isolation and 'join the international movement towards peace, reconciliation and co- operation that is spreading over the entire globe - lest we be the last to remain, all alone'.

Only a few days later he has already offered to visit Arab capitals and arranged to meet the Egyptian president tomorrow. Settlement building has been frozen (though the details are still vague) and he has settled an awkward clash with Palestinian students at the West Bank university. Most important of all, he has made peace with the United States. He welcomed James Baker, the Secretary of State, in Israel yesterday, and will later visit George Bush.

The pace is impressive, and doubtless intended to be so. Mr Rabin wants more than merely to unfreeze the dollars 10bn in American loan guarantees that were denied his predecessor because of the settlements programme. He sees an opportunity for progress and is grabbing it. His concern is not with the Greater Israel ideology that drove Yitzhak Shamir, but with the security of the state of Israel. He has accepted that this cannot be maintained by remaining an armed island in a sea of enemies. Because of his military background he is in a strong position to make this point to the people of Israel.

He can observe, too, that the opportunity for peace may not last. For the moment the Arab world is weakened and divided by the Gulf war, and very conscious of having lost the support of the Soviet Union. Syria, in particular, seems more ready than ever to talk, and the PLO also has faced up to the new realities after losing its main financial backers and seeing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled from Kuwait and the Gulf states. Its hard-line rejectionists are now in a minority.

But these favourable circumstances may not last. New arms are pouring into the area, and the mood of the Arab countries remains vulnerable to sudden change and pressures from fundamentalists. The peace process could still crash, or be reduced to aimless circling around unresolved issues, while extremists on all sides regroup their forces. The status of Jerusalem remains a major obstacle, and there will be disagreements over Mr Rabin's insistence on continuing with 'strategic' settlement, so a total freeze may be unobtainable. Mr Rabin will, if he is wise, help things along by lifting the more oppressive restrictions on the occupied Palestinians and making available much more information on the settlement programme, which has been dangerously secretive. It is important to maintain the momentum.

But the flexibility of the Palestinian negotiators will also be tested. The intransigence of the previous Israeli government made their task easy and won them a great deal of international sympathy, most notably in Washington. Now that Israel has become reasonable, they should respond in kind.