The broad agreement signed Sunday by Israel and the Palestine Authority may have primarily concerned land, but its real significance involved trust. And with the establishment of a level of trust not seen since the death of Yitzhak Rabin, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that an end to this long and bitter struggle is within sight.
Under the agreement, Israel agreed to return more West Bank land to the Palestinians. After the transfer, to be made in three installments between Monday and Jan. 20, the Palestinians will be in full or partial control of 40 percent of the West Bank. The deal essentially is a revision of the Wye River accord that was signed last fall. That's not particularly noteworthy.
What is significant, according to experts on the long Palestinian-Israeli struggle, is the restoration of confidence this agreement represents. Both sides seem willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt that they are willing to make a good-faith effort to reach a fair peace. Evidence of this is an agreement to come up with a framework for final-status negotiations by Feb. 15. Such an agreement would deal with the emotional and intractable problems of boundaries, water, refugees and Jerusalem.
While the road to peace is notoriously treacherous in the Mideast, there do seem to be grounds for the guarded hopes raised by the latest deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in calling for a framework for final-status negotiations by February and a completed deal later in the year, has set forth an ambitious timetable that increases the pressure for a settlement. The quick schedule indicates that Barak is committed to ending the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. In addition, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is 70, and would like to see a Palestinian state before he dies.
In addition, unlike past agreements, the Palestinians and Israelis reached consensus on their own without the United States acting as a broker. This agreement was not imposed on two recalcitrant adversaries.
Given the bitter history between Israelis and Palestinians, the February timetable for a final-status framework may seem overly ambitious. But there is a reference point that both sides can use as a political compass.
In late 1995 Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin, who is now Barak's justice minister, orchestrated a broad agreement with the Palestinians on the same set of questions that will be on the table at final-status talks. The agreements, which became public only after Rabin's death, never were ratified. They do, however, provide a starting point, and the fact that Beilin is part of the Barak government lends credence to the possibility that they may largely be acceptable to Barak.
The greatest unknown is how much each side is willing to compromise on the difficult final-status questions. Over the next six months, the Palestinians need to reduce the level of rhetoric concerning matters such as the future of Jerusalem, statehood with pre-1967 boundaries and the return of Palestinian refugees. It's time for them to acknowledge realities.
As one might expect in negotiations, Barak has not made clear exactly how much he's willing to give up for peace. All that's known for sure is that he will not -- and should not -- give in on anything that will detract from Israeli security. Beyond that, nobody knows for sure how far he's willing to go.
For now, however, both sides -- and the world -- can take satisfaction that a procedure for peace is in place and a rapport that once seemed irretrievably broken has been re-established.