A Giant Step Backward In The Mideast

The violence raging in Israel and the occupied territories threatens to send the Middle East back to an earlier era that many observers hoped was gone for good. Despite the considerable progress that seemed to have been achieved in bridging the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians, common sense has once again given way to religious hatred, revenge-seeking emotion, and other atavistic forms of behavior.

Both sides are to blame. Palestinian National Authority chief Yassir Arafat may have initially encouraged the fighting to improve his bargaining position with the U.S. and Israel as well as his standing within his own following. He closed the schools and told young Palestinians to take to the streets. Arafat certainly did not do enough to calm them down once the fighting began. Ariel Sharon clearly provoked the violence with his trip to Temple Mount. And Israel's extensive use of firearms, including machine guns, to put down the protests has been excessive and unwise. The high level of casualties, especially among children, caused Israel to lose the TV public-relations war around the world.

The important thing now is to cool the violence. It appears unlikely that serious peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians can resume under the Clinton Administration. Even if the fighting were to entirely stop, positions on both sides have hardened considerably. Trust is gone.

But more than the peace process is at risk now. There is a danger that a far more violent version of the Palestinian uprising of the 1980s has been launched. Extremists, religious and otherwise, have been energized on both sides. Moderate regimes elsewhere in the region will come under increased pressure. It may already be happening.

At a time of low worldwide oil inventories and high prices, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's Oct. 9 warning to Israel that the kingdom would not stand idly by if Lebanon and Syria were attacked was ominous. Also worrisome is Europe's quick decision to condemn only Israel for the violence. Eager to elbow the U.S. aside in the Middle East and hungry for commercial contracts, France, Germany, and other European countries are stirring the pot.

What's disappointing about all this is that the Palestinians and Israelis were quite close to a deal at Camp David, Maryland, in August. After years of dickering over relatively unimportant matters, the two sides got down to core issues, such as the future of Jerusalem. The Israelis made some big concessions, but Arafat could not or would not close the deal. Moderate Arab leaders did not lend their support for compromise. The outlines of a reasonable settlement are still there if leaders have the will to sell the necessary compromises to their constituents. But the blood-letting must stop first.

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