The PLO-Israel peace deal signed on Monday in Washington is far from perfect. It gives very little to the Palestinians apart from the hope that it might provide the basis for something better – and it could collapse at any point.
At worst, if opposition to the deal on either side intensifies in the next couple of months, it could fall apart before completion of Israeli military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, the first step envisaged in the peace plan. Even if it survives until the Palestinians have elected their representative council – scheduled within nine months, despite the fact that the details of the electoral process and its powers have not yet been agreed – it could easily flounder on the questions deliberately left unresolved until the second and third stages of the process, supposed to be agreed within two to five years.
All the most difficult problems between Israel and the Palestinians have yet to be addressed. Both sides want east Jerusalem, illegally occupied by Israel in 1967 and with a largely Palestinian population (although increasingly settled by Israelis), and neither has shown the slightest willingness to compromise.
The Palestinians are insistent that all Palestinians, including those who no longer live in Israel or the territories seized and occupied in 1967, should have the right to return to Palestine; the Israelis disagree, and once again both sides have shown no signs of being prepared to fudge. The Palestinians want the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories ultimately to come under Palestinian jurisdiction; the Israelis refuse to consider any such thing.
Finally, there are apparently irreconcilable differences over what are usually termed "long-term security arrangements" – in other words, whether the Palestinians should be allowed to have armed forces or whether the Israelis alone should have them – and, perhaps most important of all, what sort of autonomous Palestinian entity emerges from the peace process. The Palestinians want their own independent state; the Israelis insist that the Palestinians become part of some confederal arrangement with Jordan. No one has yet come up with a solution that anyone believes acceptable to both parties.
The peace process could break down on any one of these points. And at any stage, it is vulnerable to the actions of rejectionists on either side, with the PLO the only certain casualty if anything goes wrong. The PLO could all too easily prove incapable of policing the Gaza Strip, where it has been steadily losing support to the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in 1987.
If the PLO cannot stop attacks on Israeli settlements in Gaza or raids on Israel proper by rejectionist guerrillas based in Gaza, the response of Israeli public opinion will kill any thoughts of a long-term settlement. If the PLO suppresses Palestinian rejectionists by force of arms, however, it will lose its remaining credibility among the dispossessed in the refugee camps.
On the other hand, if Israel cannot rein in the settlers in the territories, many of whom are committed to defending their dream of Eretz Israel by force of arms, or indeed if the Israeli Labour government falls and is replaced by a Likud-based coalition hostile to any sort of compromise, Palestinians will see no reason to support the peace process, once again undermining the PLO. Yasser Arafat has embraced an extraordinarily high-risk strategy.
But if euphoria is not in order, there are ways in which the deal marks a significant symbolic breakthrough. For the first time, Israel has recognised that the Palestinians are a nation with the right to self-determination; for the first time, it has accepted that it has to deal with the PLO if any lasting peace is to come about; for the first time it as at least opened the door to the possibility that it might have to give up the territories occupied in 1967.
Simply because the Israel-Palestine conflict has gone on for so long without even a glimmer of hope of a solution, this symbolic breakthrough is extremely welcome. It provides hope where before there was only deadlock and despair. The agreement might, just might, be what it has been hailed as, the first step on the long road to the lasting settlement of the Israel-Palestine question, which in turn is the only way of securing a lasting peace in the whole of the Middle East.
The task now for the rest of the world is to do everything possible to ensure that the process does succeed. That means international support for the fledgling autonomous Palestinian political and judicial institutions (not least in police training) and, crucially, an influx of aid to develop the economic and social infrastructure of the Occupied Territories, which have been starved of investment for 26 years.
Gaza, in particular, is in a desperate state, with nearly a million Palestinians, three-quarters of them refugees, crammed into a patch of land 25 miles long and seven miles wide. Only a quarter of adult males have a full-time job. If the PLO is not to lose control of the Strip, and it must not if this week's agreement is to have any chance of success, Gaza needs large-scale investment at once.
But political and economic support for the Palestinians is not all that is needed. It is just as important for the world to keep up the pressure on Israel to stick with the timetable currently envisaged and to make the bulk of the concessions in the second and third stages of the negotiations, particularly on Jerusalem, the settlements in the Occupied Territories and independent statehood for Palestine. The Palestinians have made nearly all the compromises so far: a just peace depends on Israel reciprocating.