A HOPEFUL GLOW has returned to Mideast peace negotiations, thanks to Israeli-Palestinian agreement to complete last year's Wye accord on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and to break new ground by setting next February as the target date for a "framework" for a full peace agreement, which is to be reached by next September. For these diplomatic steps, kudos are being handed out to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and, not least, to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in a self-described "handmaiden's" role gave the negotiations a necessary and useful push. American diplomacy's good days, let alone full-fledged achievements, are not so common as to be ignored when they come along.
The essence of the progress made and aspired to in the past few days is the exchange of Israeli-occupied land for the Palestinians for what is called peace, based first on security, for the Israelis. This involves a transaction of many parts and phases, all of them intimately rooted in the politics of the contenders. That is what creates a permanent structural requirement for outside intervention by the United States, the single country with the access and influence to break the inevitable deadlocks. It makes for a nerve-racking brink-driven style of negotiation, but experience has shown that is what it takes.
This is not to say everything is now in order. The typical Israeli-Palestinian agreed step can entail more effort and pain to implement than to draft. The compromises requisite to accord can decimate the frail political consensus, on both sides, on which the accord was built. By historic standards, the diplomatic confrontation that Mrs. Albright (and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) helped break this time barely registered on the political Richter scale. It is wise to take advantage of the momentum generated by the breakthrough on "Wye Two" and on a procedure for negotiating a permanent settlement. But it is even wiser to anticipate the obstacles ahead.
One of them is Syria, where Mrs. Albright seems to have drawn a blank in her trip to Damascus yesterday. Hafez Assad, the president, looks to be stuck on the notion that the Israelis must agree to restore all war-lost Syrian territory without his having at the same time to lay out how he will satisfy Israeli considerations of security and peace in return. Mr. Assad has a way to go to keep up the polish on his reputation as a shrewd negotiator.