How two truths make one tragedy

The Israeli View
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The Independent Online

Just weeks ago, my family and I went out for Saturday lunch in Bethlehem. The magazine I edit ran a cover story on the thousands of Israelis flocking into the West Bank to shop in Palestinian cities. One of my Israeli reporter colleagues was given a guided tour of Ramallah.

Just weeks ago, my family and I went out for Saturday lunch in Bethlehem. The magazine I edit ran a cover story on the thousands of Israelis flocking into the West Bank to shop in Palestinian cities. One of my Israeli reporter colleagues was given a guided tour of Ramallah.

Now Palestinian antagonism is such that when two uniformed Israeli reservists stray into Ramallah - not two undercover commandos, as the Palestinian media claims - they get torn limb from limb, and undercover commandos are activ-ated to try to bring the killers to justice, all too aware that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has no intention of doing so.

Just a few weeks ago, too, Mr Arafat was sharing a pleasant evening's conversation at Prime Minister Ehud Barak's house in Israel. The shift from the brink of peace to the brink of war has been stunning and, frankly, incomprehensible.

I don't know how much control Yasser Arafat has over his purported loyalists in Gaza and the West Bank, the ones with the guns who are vowing to maintain what they laughably call their new "peaceful intifada" until Palestinian independence is achieved. I don't know whether he genuinely believes that more than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the past three weeks as part of a diabolical "exit strategy" from the peace process, hatched together by Mr Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon, as is being claimed by Mr Arafat's now under-employed former peace negotiator Saeb Erekat.

But I do know that the notion of such an "exit strategy" is absurd, that this bloodshed is futile, and that it may well get worse, if the Tanzim and other gunmen don't stop shooting.

At Camp David in July, Mr Barak went far beyond the presumed limits of Israeli consensus, and offered to withdraw from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank and to share Jerusalem with Mr Arafat. He did this even though he was far from sure his public would back him, and even though his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated five years ago by an Israeli citizen, for the "crime" of relinquishing other Biblical territory to Palestinian control. He did this because, as Mr Erekat knows, he was seriously trying for a permanent peace.

Maybe Mr Arafat feared that to sign up for Mr Barak's offer would be to sign his own death warrant. Shared control of Jerusalem, true enough, is not what he has been promising his people down the years. But isn't that what leadership is about - taking the long view, agreeing a deal that offers your people independent statehood, a partnership with neighbouring Israel and international support, even if it risks igniting the ire of the extremists?

I don't blame the mothers of Gaza for being ready, as a Palestinian journalist told me a few days ago, "to sacrifice their daughters for Palestine", because I've also been watching Palestinian TV, and the carefully edited footage of Palestinian misery and Israeli brutality leaves very little room for hope.

That journalist seemed not to know that Mr Barak had been seeking to work with Mr Arafat towards Palestinian statehood, or to recognise that Ariel Sharon, whose visit to Temple Mount - the Muslim Haram al-Sharif, or Dome of the Rock - last month sparked all this bloodletting, heads the political party that most Israelis rejected at the last elections.

But I do blame Mr Arafat. For failing to lead his people to a peace agreement neither side would have liked but both sides could have lived with, and for failing properly to inform his people that the opportunity for peace was there.

Mr Sharon's visit was insensitive; Mr Barak doubtless regrets that he didn't prevent it, and that Israeli police didn't deploy and react more sensitively the next day, when seven Palestinians were killed outside the mosques. But that was more than 100 deaths ago. Genuine peace partners would have worked together to put a stop to the killing. Mr Arafat couldn't even bring himself to honour his commitment at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, and publicly call on his own people to help end the violence.

So the signs are that the body count will keep on rising. Quite soon now, Mr Barak, discredited by the failure of the peace effort, will be replaced by Mr Sharon or, more likely, by Benjamin Netanyahu, the man whom Israelis rejected a year ago because they wanted to give moderation a chance.

Mr Netanyahu will not strain any Israeli consensus in seeking reconciliation, or offer to withdraw from 90 per cent of the West Bank, or to share Jerusalem. And I don't know what Mr Arafat thinks he, or his people, have to gain from that.

David Horovitz, editor of 'The Jerusalem Report' magazine, is the author 'A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel'.

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