THE QUIET YOU hear in the Middle East is the sound of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators embarking on their third attempt -- the first two fizzled -- to initiate talks on a final settlement. The six years of sound and fury they just have completed were devoted to negotiating limited self-rule for Palestinians and matching security measures for Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, found veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ready to move promptly to talks on the far larger and more stressful project of a permanent peace. The two leaders have promised, under official U.S. patronage, to agree on a "framework" for a settlement in five months and to consummate the deal only seven months after that.
It is hard to imagine that issues encrusted by a century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be taken down by the negotiators in only a year's time -- a pace dictated in some measure by the American political calendar. This is the plain lesson of the postponements and delays that have marked even what are regarded as the swift and successful parts of past diplomacy. But who would oppose a more deliberate pace founded on the goodwill being shown now by the parties and on their evident readiness to start stepping up to the hard questions of borders, refugees, settlements, security, sovereignty, water and the rest, not least Jerusalem? Conditions are not going to get any better, not so that you would want to count on it, anyway.
Mr. Barak, a strategist, has a fallback position -- it is part of his opening bargaining position too. He has begun discussing a long-term interim agreement as an alternative to a full peace. Taken and applied literally, this option is bad news, an alibi for an effort too restricted and cautious to go anywhere except toward trust-busting annexationism. This is why the Palestinian negotiating team slapped down the notion as soon as Prime Minister Barak raised it.
Applied more creatively, however, the idea of a phased settlement could keep the diplomacy of peace in closer step with the domestic politics of peace. Israelis might be readier to grant concessions if the concessions demanded came with a testing period. Palestinians might discover that they can get more over a longer time if they demand less in a shorter time. But certainly nothing less than a good-faith attempt to follow the mutually agreed-upon 12-month negotiating program will do now. The sound of peacemaking must be heard in the land.