Violence on the Mount deals blow to peace process

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The eruption of violence on the Temple Mount - the volcano with the golden dome in the heart of Jerusalem known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif - deals a heavy blow to a the main players in the failing attempts to close a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The eruption of violence on the Temple Mount - the volcano with the golden dome in the heart of Jerusalem known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif - deals a heavy blow to a the main players in the failing attempts to close a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The deaths yesterday of four Palestinians and scores of injuries in the third major catastrophe on the mount in a decade is both a setback for Israel's Ehud Barak and his ally Bill Clinton, but it also carries dangers for the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Mr Barak has yet to deliver on the promise of peace that led to his landslide victory in May last year. Now the chances of doing so are even slimmer.

A restive Knesset returns from its summer recess at the end of next month, and he has still not patched together a new coalition that will secure him a majority in the 120-seat parliament. The collapse of his last coalition - when several right-wing and religious parties walked out of government, infuriated by Mr Barak's handling of peace negotiations - left him with little more than 30 votes.

Ariel Sharon, the chairman of Likud, made himself look ludicrous with his reckless visit to the Temple Mount earlier this week. But Benjamin Netanyahu, the previous prime minister, is buoyant after prosecutors decided not to pursue corruption allegations against him, and has inched ahead of him in the opinion polls.

For Yasser Arafat, the threat looms of a repeat of the violence in May when six Palestinians were killed during 10 "days of rage", which included a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian security forces. Although the protests were initially orchestrated by Mr Arafat to pressure Israel to stop breaking promises made in earlier peace accords, they quickly ran out of control.

A measure of the popular anger was not only directed at the old Israeli enemy, but at Mr Arafat, and the corruption and ineptitude of the officials around him, known cynically on the overcrowded streets of Gaza as "the Oslo class". His grip is strong, reinforced by a plethora of security services, but it is not complete.

The picture is looking steadily worse for the "peace process", and the efforts of Bill Clinton to force it through in the dying months of his presidency. The chances of a final settlement, including an agreement over Jerusalem's holy sites are even more remote, which leaves only the possibility of an interim agreement.

The four Palestinians who died will now become "martyrs" in Palestinian mythology, like the 17 young men who shot to death almost a decade ago by Israeli soldiers in a similar clash on the mount. A glass cabinet containing their unwashed blood-stained T-shirts and jeans greet visitors as they enter wthe small Islamic museum on the Temple Mount.

Palestinian opinion, much of which has been sickened by seeing Mr Arafat make one concession after another in his peace talks - is likely to harden further, particularly over the mount. Khairi Dujani, a senior official from the Wafq, the Islamic authority which administers the 33-acre plaza, said: "Neither Arafat nor all the group on whom he depends have the right to give away anything." He said tensions were already growing between the Wafq and the Israelis because of the focus on the site during the peace negotiations. The Israelis had begun increasingly to "interfere", he said, a claim borne out by the surly and obstructive behaviour of the soldiers who guard the gates around the edge.

Neither side is remotely close to solving the mind-boggling puzzle of the site, a 35-acre esplanade that contains monuments holy to Muslims, that is coveted as a symbol of both the Israeli and Palestinian nationhood, and covers a spot profoundly sacred to religious Jews. The latter believe it is the location of the Second Temple, whose destruction by the Romans in 70AD symbolise the start of the long Jewish exile, ending with the Holocaust, the creation of Israel in 1948 and the conquests of the Six-Day War.

Many proposals have been floated, including joint sovereignty, handing it over to the UN Security Council, or placing sovereignty in the hands of God, but none have bridged the gap. Yasser Arafat long ago abandoned hope of getting back all the land seized by Israel in 1967, but he has stuck to his demands for total Palestinian sovereignty over the Mount.

The same position is taken by the man who runs the Al-Aqsa mosque. "It has been a Muslim place for 1,300 years and so it will remain," said Sheikh Muhammed Hussein.

And yet, even secular Israelis balk at the thought of placing Judaism's spiritual heart - the biblical site where King David is deemed to have kept the Ark of the Covenant, and where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac - wholly in Islamic hands.

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