The Middle East has lost a passionate advocate of peace. Ms. Leah Rabin, the widow of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, died of cancer this week at the age of 72. For some, Ms. Rabin was a meddlesome, divisive figure. For many more, she was a tireless campaigner for peace and friendship among Israelis and Arabs, a woman who suffered the most horrific personal tragedy yet emerged even more committed to her cause. Now more than ever, the Middle East needs voices like Ms. Rabin’s.
More than 200 people, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians, have been killed in the two months of fighting that have convulsed Palestinian territories in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Summits, ceasefires and attempts at international mediation have failed to restore order. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to be talking past each other, focusing their fight on a second front — the court of international opinion. The continuing violence suggests that no one is winning; the mounting death toll reveals that all are losing.
Ms. Rabin’s death comes as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians enters a new phase. Rocks have given way to random shootings as Palestinians now target Israeli civilians. Israel has responded with its own attacks on individual Palestinian leaders, and stepped up the blockade of Palestinian territory, making a grim economic situation even worse. Although human-rights groups have condemned the Israeli government for the excessive use of force, Israel’s prime minister, Mr. Ehud Barak, considers his policy a restrained response, and has repeated his desire to return to the peace process. That is becoming more difficult. Israelis are pressing the prime minister to respond in kind to escalating violence by Palestinians.
In this atmosphere, Ms. Rabin’s death is a great loss. According to Mr. Shimon Peres, her husband’s rival for leadership of the Labor Party and his partner in peacemaking, Ms. Rabin was “like a lioness.” She could speak to leaders in both camps, straddling the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians, confident that she was honoring her husband’s life and his efforts to build a lasting peace in the Middle East.
The convulsions of the past two months put his legacy at risk. Peacemaking was always a high-risk exercise, as Mr. Meron Benvenisti explains in his article on the opposite page, but it was the only option. Both sides have to acknowledge the existence of the other, the injustices of the past and the need to find an accommodation so they could build a common future.
Compromise is the only way forward, and few understood that better than Ms. Rabin. Both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat need to return to that fundamental principle. While Mr. Arafat cannot halt the violence, he can make an unmistakable attempt to rein it in. His failure to do that has cost him credibility with Israel and the United States, the key backer of the peace process. For his part, Mr. Barak must resist the temptation to escalate the violence and give Mr. Arafat room to do his part. Neither man can back the other into a corner.
Both sides are losing ground. A poll of Palestinians showed that only one-third believe there is a chance of peaceful co-existence with Israel once a Palestinian state is established. Since the peace process has made little tangible improvement in the lives of ordinary Palestinians, it is only natural that there is widespread support for the fighting — especially when resistance in Southern Lebanon drove the Israeli Army to redeploy south of the border.
And yet, the frustration that has bubbled over in recent weeks has not ended the search for peace. More than 50 percent of Palestinians want to continue the peace process. Palestinian leaders must not attempt to choke off that desire; Israel must not give them reason to do so. Sealing off the territories makes normal life impossible for the Palestinians, compounding their frustrations and giving them yet more grievances.
Thicker walls and higher fences between the two communities will not ensure peace in the Middle East. Ms. Rabin grasped that basic fact, and, it once seemed, so did Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak. Now, things have reached a point where the Israeli prime minister is warning his Palestinian counterpart that Mr. Arafat should not attend Ms. Rabin’s funeral, nor should he make a condolence call to her home out of fear of escalating tensions. Sadly, no such foresight was at work when rightwing leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, the event that triggered the violence. Mr. Arafat should not be offended. If he seeks to honor Ms. Rabin’s memory, there are other gestures he can make that are just as meaningful, if not more so.
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