In the Middle East, progress is measured in baby steps. That's why, although critics may now be tempted to label the Oslo accords as a failure, the tentative agreement reached this week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is of significance.

Six months ago, this page worried that neither side was willing to show good faith. Now, both sides seem willing to do so. President Clinton has scheduled a summit between both sides in October. We trust he wouldn't do so unless a meaningful agreement was imminent.Given his personal and political problems, Clinton's actions have given rise to skepticism. An October foreign-policy triumph would undoubtedly help Democrats going into the election and restore confidence in the White House. That is unproductive cynicism. Genuine progress between Israelis and Palestinians is worth celebrating regardless of the motives that led to it.

By now, according to the timetable agreed upon in Oslo, both sides should have been much farther along than this. They should have been engaged in final talks about how a Palestinian state will look and what the future of Jerusalem will be. That won't happen by the May 1999 deadline.

But then, Mideast peace issues rarely conform themselves to prearranged deadlines. People keep blowing things up, for one thing. In Israel, all agreements must be measured against a backdrop in which two groups of people each lay claim to the same territory, each with fervent religious intent. That's true with the latest concessions, as well.

Netanyahu apparently has agreed to withdraw Israeli forces from another 13 percent of land along the West Bank. To mollify Israeli concerns about security, 3 percent of that land would be set aside as a nature preserve - a sort of buffer zone in which no Palestinian settlements would be allowed.

In return, Israel wants an end to terrorist attacks by Palestinians. It seems a minor concession for Arafat, but it may be a difficult one to guarantee with absolute certainty. Arafat must disarm militant groups and root out organizations bent on terrorist attacks.

Certainly, the Palestinian leader could do much to ensure peace. For one thing, he could stop making provocative statements about declaring an independent Palestinian state, and he could react swiftly to punish anyone who commits a terrorist act. But it is unlikely a compromise would be accepted totally by fanatic groups on either side who see total victory as the only acceptable solution.

As this page has said before, patience, determination and visionary leadership is necessary to bring about a lasting peace in Israel - one that will survive despite the actions of a few violent factions.