The attention of most Middle East watchers is fixed this week on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Israeli and Syrian negotiators on Wednesday began the first of several scheduled meetings amid an unprecedented mood of optimism. After nearly half a century of hostility and four years of fitful and unproductive talks, there are unmistakable signals that the longtime bitter enemies might at last be ready to negotiate peace.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, what remains the most dramatic achievement of the peace process so far was entering a new phase. One day ahead of schedule, Israeli troops ended their 28-year occupation of the West Bank town of Ramallah.
In the last seven weeks Israel has handed over six West Bank towns and more than 400 villages to the Palestinian Authority. The authority now controls about 90% of the West Bank's more than 1 million Arabs, and about one-third of the land in the Delaware-size territory.
CRUCIAL ELECTIONS: Since May of last year the Gaza Strip has been under the authority's administrative rule. Next March most Israeli forces will leave the West Bank town of Hebron. For nearly all of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, self-rule is about to become a reality.
The strongest political sign of that reality will come in two elections on Jan. 20. One will be for an 88-member Palestinian Council. The second will be for the council's president, the de facto head of the nascent Palestinian political entity.
Yasser Arafat, facing little more than token opposition on the ballot and a probable boycott of the election by the radical Hamas, which opposes any compromise settlement with Israel, will be elected. So, almost certainly, will enough of his supporters to give him a strong majority on the council. Assuming the election is essentially untainted--it will be monitored by international observers-- Arafat for the first time will wield power based on true electoral legitimacy. Now it must be asked how he will use that power.
There are those under the authority who worry about the answer. In the past, Arafat liked to talk about his vision of a secular and democratic Palestinian state. Some Palestinians are openly wondering whether either will be achieved. In Bethlehem, many in the Christian minority are nervous about their religious and civil future under a Muslim-dominated regime.
CIVIL RIGHTS QUESTION: In Ramallah Wednesday, as Israeli troops left, a celebrating Palestinian women's activist said she expected soon to be back on the streets "to struggle for my rights." Her fear is that Palestinian rule could bring simply "a state that resembles all the other Arab states," meaning strongman rule and too little respect for civil rights.
Such fears were given substance again this week when Palestinian police arrested an editor of Al Quds, the largest of the Palestinian dailies. Maher Alami's "crime" was his refusal to publish on Page 1 a flattering story about Arafat that Arafat wanted published. Alami's decision to run the desired story inside seems reasonable: There was no more room on Page 1, every other story also being about Arafat.
This isn't the first time Arafat's cops have acted to intimidate the press. Probably it won't be the last. This is not the road that will take Palestinians to their long-promised democratic state. Arafat: Arrest of editor by his police fosters suspicions.