Since the Middle East peace talks broke off last summer, following the failure of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s high-profile Camp David initiative, there have been fears that mounting frustrations would explode in violence. Those fears were realized last week when tensions boiled over in Jerusalem. Over 50 people have been killed in the aftermath of a visit to a disputed shrine by rightwing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon. The violence — virtually a war — has stopped the peace process in its tracks. The fighting cannot be allowed to roll it back.
Few individuals are more despised in the Arab world than Mr. Sharon, leader of the Likud party. He was defense minister in 1982 and oversaw Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which led to the murder of hundreds of Palestinians when Lebanese Phalangist forces entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. He was forced from office when an official Israeli government inquiry found him responsible for the killings. His political career was resurrected after the defeat of his Likud rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in elections by Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The two men are now fighting for control of their party.
The violence began after Mr. Sharon visited the Old City of Jerusalem. He led a group of Israelis to the Temple Mount, considered by Jews to be the most sacred site in the world. The temple was destroyed by Romans and on its ruins Muslims later built the Haram As-Sharif mosque, a shrine that is just as holy to the followers of Islam. Muslims administer the site, but Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Mr. Sharon’s visit was intended to reaffirm Israel’s sovereignty over the site — a pointless effort, since Israel’s claim to the Temple Mount has not been challenged.
Violence followed immediately, and it spread quickly throughout Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has also escalated in intensity, graduating from rock-throwing to the use of automatic weapons. Israel has deployed tanks and helicopter gunships. The death toll now exceeds 50 and over 1,000 people have been injured. In one heart-rending scene captured on film, a young Arab boy was shot and killed while cowering in his father’s arms. Arabs in Israel have called a general strike in support of the Palestinians. Tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities have reached intolerable levels as decades of grievances are being vented.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had hoped to use the threat of violence to strengthen his hand in negotiations with Mr. Barak. He has badly miscalculated. The anger felt by Palestinians cannot be controlled. There is evidence that Palestinian security forces attempted to enforce the ceasefire agreed upon on Tuesday, but the anger that is driving the protesters cannot be contained. In such circumstances, a collapse of the ceasefire was inevitable.
Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat are meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Paris, but there are few hopes of ending the stalemate. While all involved have now had a taste of what a full-scale breakdown in the peace process would mean, the room for compromise has been diminished.
Mr. Barak has made it plain that he will not be forced to negotiate by the threat of violence. Mr. Arafat’s willingness to play that card, coming only days after he met with the Israeli prime minister, may have damaged his credibility with the man with whom he must strike a deal. The Israeli prime minister has also been weakened domestically. Any agreement must be approved by the Israeli Parliament and the Israeli people. The violence only hardens Israeli fears about the reliability of Palestinians as a partner in peace.
Finally, the fighting has reinforced suspicions and arguments over control of Jerusalem, the single most divisive issue in the peace talks. Muslims have made it plain that they have a powerful emotional claim to the holy sites in the Old City. Israelis will counter that they must have control over Temple Mount out of fear of being excluded. It is increasingly apparent that the city will have to be divided or put under some form of international control if there is to be a genuine peace.
The threat of a serious breakdown in the peace process is real. The trust that has provided a foundation for progress has been stretched to the breaking point. It is unclear whether Mr. Arafat can control the furies he has unleashed. Governments in neighboring countries are reportedly worried about unrest as their own citizens make common cause with the Palestinians. Those fears must drive the negotiators to work for peace. This unrest is a hint of what is in store if they break down for good.
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