Leading Article: These violent scuffles are a sign of progress

Click to follow
THERE IS no reason yet to crack open the champagne. The changes are creeping only gradually upon us. They are, however, undeniable. Yesterday, Israeli troops evicted hundreds of Jewish settlers, literally kicking and screaming, from a West Bank encampment that stood as a symbol of resistance to any land-for-peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

On the face of it, the violent scuffles at Havat Maon hardly seem to give cause for much optimism. Shacks were torn down, while settlers flung themselves to the ground in a doomed attempt to save their illegally constructed homes; even a synagogue was razed. The settlers' resistance can be taken as (further) proof of a determination to resist change.

Crucially, however, the government of Ehud Barak no longer bows with sickening inevitability to the settlers, unlike the government of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. That in itself is a mark of progress. The Israeli cabinet voted yesterday to go ahead with further transfer of land to the Palestinians next week.

Mr Barak's support for the peace process has sometimes seemed patchy. His administration has issued more construction tenders on the West Bank than did Mr Netanyahu. None the less, he shows a flexibility that was entirely alien to Mr Netanyahu.

Last week, on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a meeting to commemorate his achievements was attended by President Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Mr Barak. The Israeli leader praised the memory of Mr Rabin, who had led the way "towards security and peace in the region". Even acknowledgement of that simple fact comes as a relief, after years of bad-mouthing the Oslo agreement.

As in Northern Ireland, there is no shortage of reasons for pessimism. None the less - again, as in Northern Ireland - the weariness of struggle translates into a yearning for peace on both sides. Change is in the air. A framework agreement is due to be signed in February between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israeli reports suggest that the establishment of a Palestinian state may well form part of that agreement.

The signing of an agreement is no guarantee of peace, as the Good Friday agreement (and the Oslo agreement before that) clearly showed. Nevertheless, Israelis who reject all compromise are learning - courtesy of their own government - that such intolerance is not acceptable. It is a start, however small.