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BEIRUT — With a few exceptions, the Israelis contend that the bloody tumult in Israel and the occupied territory has been instigated and stage-managed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a means of strengthening his hand in the faltering peace process.

This is not taken seriously by Western leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac, who put the blame squarely on far-right Israeli politician Gen. Ariel Sharon and called Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, an “irresponsible provocation.” Even U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pronounced the visit “definitely counter-productive.”

In fact, historically, nothing has aroused Palestinian emotions like slights to Jerusalem’s holy places. Back in the ’20s, the worst demonstrations ever to shake the British mandate broke out as a result of early Zionist efforts to alter the status quo governing Muslim and Jewish rights around the Wall, Judaism’s most sacred site. And it was another such attempt — the digging of a tunnel under the mosques — that, in 1996, triggered the last popular upheaval.

While Sharon provoked the eruption, the fury that underlay it had been building for decades; nothing shows that more clearly than the participation of Israel’s own Arab citizens. Arafat had nothing to do with that. Their outrage was doubtless intensified by the fact that Islamism has been growing in their ranks; but it was rooted mainly in the systematic racial discrimination to which they are subject. Israeli Cabinet Minister Yossi Beilin said that “the violent events over the last few days in the Arab towns in Israel are the most serious events ever in the history of relations between Jews and Arabs since the establishment of the state.”

It was all basically spontaneous, then. But that doesn’t mean that Arafat misses any opportunity to turn such upheavals to his own diplomatic ends. Ever since the 1993 Oslo agreement, his negotiating position has been very weak, dependent as it is on a balance of power overwhelmingly weighted in Israel’s favor, rather than on international institutions and jurisprudence that favor the Palestinians.

One means of pressure available to Arafat is the crisis diplomacy he engages in from time to time, his displays of inflexibility in the face of deadlines of the kind that now threaten Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak with the collapse of his government and U.S. President Bill Clinton with the denial of his Nobel Peace Prize. Another is “confrontation” on the ground.

The utility of confrontations, especially if convincingly spontaneous, is that they give Israelis a foretaste of what they might face should the peace process break down altogether, and galvanize the Americans into fresh endeavors to rescue it — endeavors that redress the power balance a little in the Palestinians’ favor. It was, after all, the six-year intifada that produced Oslo. The last upheaval, over the tunnel, ended with the chief interlocutors rededicating themselves to the peace process at a White House summit. Given a vast disparity in military, as well as diplomatic, power, the gravity of confrontations is always measured chiefly in terms of Palestinian dead. It was 71 last time; so far it is 65 this time.

Arafat desperately needed new diplomatic clout anywhere he could find it. The Sharon outrage came in handy. It is said that members of his own loyalist organization, Fatah, rather than Hamas militants, are playing a key role in the fighting. That is not surprising, for this is a make-or-break time in the whole peace process, and in Arafat’s own career as Mr. Palestine.

The two sides have been grappling over final-status issues; the signs are that they were getting pretty close to agreement. If so, however, that was because, in any true historic reckoning, it is Arafat, not Barak, who has given by far the most away. After Camp David, the Americans blamed Arafat for not matching Barak’s concessions. But it has been calculated that what these “concessions” would leave Arafat with, had he accepted, is 15 sq. kms of “administrative control” over the 64 sq. km of the East Jerusalem to which Israel illegally helped itself after 1967. But Arafat cannot accept that, in either his own name or that of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The scale of the latest outbreak can be seen as a product of the fact that a final peace agreement is so very close. At least it can if Arafat is still truly in control of events. When calm is finally restored, Arafat will — or so he imagines — enter the clinching phase of negotiations from a position of greater strength, having just demonstrated the havoc that he can cause — or, rather, that he alone can bring to an end. He may also, thanks to Sharon’s blunder and Israel’s subsequent military excesses, have won back some of the U.S. favor he undeservedly lost at Camp David.

But that is the optimistic scenario. The other, perhaps more realistic, one is that Arafat is less and less in control and that, whatever the role he has assigned his own followers, he is actually riding a wave of growing public anger and disillusionment with the whole peace process and the way he has conducted it.

Certainly, if he doesn’t deliver an agreement his people can accept, and soon, the logic of confrontation will develop with or without him. And it will develop on the Israeli side, too, since the very idea that Palestinians should think to get their way by force is always anathema to Israel. What happens in Palestine (unlike south Lebanon) involves what Israel sees as vital Zionist interests, and ultimately its own survival. The firepower it is now deploying is just a symptom of the lengths it is always ready to go to retain its mastery. For the Palestinians, the death of the peace process would mean one of two things — a return either to subjugation or to resistance of the kind that Arafat himself once led.

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