Suddenly, after all the posturing, threats and recriminations, a consensus has emerged among the negotiators at the Middle East peace talks in Washington that real progress toward resolving one of the world's most intractable political problems is possible.
This emerging belief in the chance of eventual success represents, of course, only the first step on an arduous journey that is unlikely to conclude until this century is near its end. But at least a genuine beginning is being made.
Israel's government is preparing to offer the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip a deal on autonomy and self-government that goes beyond any ideas earlier Israeli governments even considered. Palestinian negotiators, while acknowledging the importance of Jerusalem's changed position, might protest that the offer doesn't go far enough. That's to be expected. What would be unexpectedly self-destructive is if the Palestinians turn their backs on the Israeli proposals as a basis for negotiations, for almost certainly those proposals represent the best opening offer the Palestinians are going to see.
Israel's plan invites the wrath of the proponents of Greater Israel--like the previous Likud-dominated government--who would retain all of the West Bank forever. It similarly is anathema to Palestinian and other Arab rejectionists, among whom are those who demand not just the return of every inch of land lost when Arab states attacked Israel in 1967 but the eradication of Israel itself. In the coming months and years of talks and interim autonomy arrangements, moderate Israelis and Arabs alike will need to confront the maximalists in their own camps on many points. It could get ugly.
The new atmosphere validates the Clinton Administration's efforts to put the talks back on track. Success isn't assured. But at a minimum the odds against failure have improved significantly.