JERUSALEM — Three years ago today, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stood on the White House lawn and reached out to one another in a handshake that many had believed impossible.
On Sept. 4, Arafat and Israel's new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, joined hands in a gesture that many said was inevitable, an important but overdue echo of its dramatic predecessor.
Between those landmark events, the Mideast peace process--ushered in with great hopes that it was the end game of one of history's most intractable conflicts--has endured through extraordinary tumult.
Little more than a year after the Israeli-Palestinian accord, neighboring Jordan reached its own treaty with the Jewish state and there seemed reason to believe that even hard-line Syria might ultimately do the same.
But then came the devastating incidents aimed at derailing the peace process, including the assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Jew and deadly suicide bus bombings by Islamic extremists.
Now, several years into a process aimed at ending decades of hostilities, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not, by one key measure, more peaceful than before. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are stalled on substantive issues. And Israel and Syria, despite a planned trip to the Mideast next week by U.S. negotiator Dennis B. Ross, seem still far from reaching an agreement.
Still, many observers say they take heart simply because the negotiations are alive. "Every single step in this process has been subject to terrible difficulties, but basically I'm still optimistic," Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri said. "In the end, I know we will have peace."
Avneri and others interviewed also pointed to areas of at least limited success, along with the Israel-Jordan agreement that resulted directly from the Palestinian accord. A range of analysts say these include: surprisingly good cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in territories under the control of Arafat's Palestinian Authority; and a threefold increase in foreign investment in Israel since the first agreement was signed, testament to an apparent faith in the region's long-term stability.
Israeli and Palestinian officials, once barred by Israeli law from meeting each other, also now hold relatively routine discussions on everything from education to agriculture. And the formal talks, which broke off in May after the election of Netanyahu's right-wing government, resumed last week.
"The biggest change is in the attitudes on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, especially on the official level," Palestinian activist Ghassan Khatib said. "Before, the two sides believed that the use of force, whether through war, revolution or other aggression, was the way to achieve their goals. But now, they believe that dialogue is a better way to reach their objectives"--security for the Israelis and an independent state for the Palestinians.
One area of unexpected success has been the cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces who share information, assist each other with arrests and operations and mount joint patrols in major West Bank towns.
Israeli Brig. Gen. Herzel Gedj, who heads the army coordination with the Palestinian security services, described the work as "very good," especially in light of history. Over time, Gedj said, those on each side have been forced to change their perceptions. Some Palestinian commanders, for example, "were in Israeli prisons before and even fought against us in Lebanon," he said. Now, the two sides work together.
But both also know the limits, said Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence issues for Haaretz, a daily newspaper. "There is no cooperation whatsoever when it comes to difficult issues like extradition," Melman said. "There is not a great deal of personal trust involved either; they based the game on mutual interest."
On the economic front, Israeli financial analysts and government officials still speak with hope of one day participating in some sort of Mideast common market. For now, though, they are content with a dramatic rise in net foreign investment in Israel since the peace process began, from $782 million in 1993 to almost $2.2 billion in 1995.
But there has not been a parallel investment in areas under Palestinian control. Many nations that promised to put money into the West Bank and Gaza Strip if Palestinian leaders made peace with Israel have not come through, adding to the hardship created by Israel's long closure of the territories after the suicide bombings.
Still, there is one indicator that Israelis point to when figuring the success or failure of the Palestinian accord: the number of victims of terrorist attacks since the pact was signed. Figures released Thursday show that--on a September-to-September basis--more people were killed in attacks in Israel and the territories in 1994-95 (83 deaths) and 1995-96 (75) than in 1993-94 (66), 1992-93 (50) or 1991-92 (36).
But Jerusalem-based Peace Watch also noted that 60 of the 75 killed in 1995-96 died in the February and March bus bombings; 15 were killed in other attacks, a much lower figure than in previous years.
At the same time, though, the figure for those killed in terrorist incidents in Israel proper since the accord has risen dramatically--it was 16 the year before the pact and rose to 66 in the last year, the report showed.
Dan Polisar, the group's executive director, said Islamic extremist groups like Hamas appear to have made a tactical decision to carry out attacks in Israel, not in areas under Arafat's control, and to refrain from attacks almost entirely in recent months. "So you could say that we're beginning to see the fruits of the agreement in Gaza and the West Bank, but you could also say that there's nothing really permanent here," Polisar said.