Leading Article: This is only the beginning

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YESTERDAY's agreement between Israel and the PLO, signed in Cairo, was certainly historic. Its significance lies not in the fine print, but in what the document represents: the beginning of an irreversible process of Israel's return after 27 years of occupation towards its pre-1967 borders. Yasser Arafat cannot yet claim to be a fully fledged head of state. If the process set in train by yesterday's ceremony is a success, however, he has every chance of becoming one.

Palestinians will find much to complain of in the agreement's details. The territories it establishes in the West Bank and Gaza will issue their own stamps, and have their own dialling codes. But the Israelis will allow Mr Arafat a much smaller police force than he wanted. Even after the PLO chairman's last-minute annotations to the Jericho map, the area under self-rule there will be smaller than that of the London borough of Enfield.

The danger is that domestic political pressures will tempt Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, to treat the Cairo agreement as an end, not as a beginning. For every Israeli who sees the deal as the country's last hope of peace, there is another who cites continuing violence as proof that the Palestinians still aim to drive the Jews into the sea. Among the settlers, there is also an alarming minority who have been emboldened by the Hebron massacre into saying that Israel should respond to Arab violence in kind. It is the job of the United States and the European Union to prevent Israel from dragging its heels.

The best way of achieving this is to maintain diplomatic pressure on Israel, while giving rapid assistance to help the inhabitants of the territories out of poverty. Western governments may be tempted to use the lack of well-planned projects on which to spend the money and the complaints of other Arabs who are poorer still than the Palestinians as excuses for delay. But the consequences of doing nothing could be grave.

The chill winds of fundamentalism are blowing through the Islamic world, and Iran is ready to exert its baleful influence unless it is restrained. Pluralism and tolerance may begin to spread through the Middle East - but only if they have strong roots in a group of countries around the Levant. The nascent Palestine cannot be excluded from that group.

The challenge for Yasser Arafat in the coming years will be to lay down his pistol, and to exchange his revolutionary's fatigues for the suit and tie of a civilian politician. This will not be easy, for his support inside the territories is far from universal. Mr Arafat is not yet by any stretch a democrat; nor has he delegated enough authority to the talented cadre of young Palestinians from the territories. In Mr Rabin, Israel may have found its De Klerk. But while Mr Arafat settles down to his more pragmatic role, Palestine must continue to search for its Mandela.