Peace in the Middle East now depends on the next US president

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The Independent Online

What price now, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that incurable optimists still refer to as "the peace process"? At least 40 people dead in five days of rioting in the West Bank, the Gaza strip and even inside Israel proper; ceasefires that collapse even before they are put into effect; bitter exchanges of blame between officials of the two sides - if this is the prelude to peace, goodness knows what the run-up to war would look like.

What price now, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that incurable optimists still refer to as "the peace process"? At least 40 people dead in five days of rioting in the West Bank, the Gaza strip and even inside Israel proper; ceasefires that collapse even before they are put into effect; bitter exchanges of blame between officials of the two sides - if this is the prelude to peace, goodness knows what the run-up to war would look like.

It is hard to remember that less than three months ago, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat embarked on a summit at Camp David that many believed had a real chance of success. What chance is there now that President Clinton will achieve his ambition of sealing his legacy with a historic Middle East settlement? At this moment, it is more likely that a few days after his White House successor is elected on 7 November, the Palestinians, in their frustration and fury, will go ahead with their oft-postponed threat and unilaterally declare independence.

Just possibly, despite the violence of the past few days, all is not yet lost. Peacemaking managed to survive the last comparable outbreak of mayhem, in 1996, when Israel's former leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, opened a tunnel in Jerusalem close to Al Aqsa, Islam's third-holiest shrine, where the latest clashes began. Now, as then, the crisis reflects the most intractable issue of all: Jerusalem's status.

Since the more conciliatory Mr Barak took power in May 1999, what must surely be the bones of a final agreement have become apparent: the return by Israel of most of the occupied territories, a limited return of refugees, and some form of Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem. Alas, at the moment, neither leader is strong enough at home to accept such a deal. Earlier concessions on the Jerusalem issue broke asunder Mr Barak's coalition on the eve of his departure to Camp David. There, all of the celebrated Clinton charm could not persuade Yasser Arafat to accept terms that he knew he would be unable to persuade his own people were anything other than a new betrayal.

At this point, with negotiations deadlocked and Palestinian impatience rising by the hour, the entwinement of a Palestinian peace and Israeli domestic politics proved fatal. Last Thursday's visit by Ariel Sharon, leader of the Likud party, to the holy site of Temple Mount, was the spark that lit the conflagration. It is hard to believe that Mr Sharon, perhaps the Israeli politician most detested by the Palestinians, did not expect trouble - trouble that, as he is an opponent of further concessions by Israel, can only serve his aims.

The immediate requirement now is to end the violence, winning time for tempers to cool. But even this first step may not prove easy, despite Mr Clinton's claim that both Mr Barak and President Arafat have agreed to a three-party investigation, led by the US, into the fighting. The second is a new US president regarded by the Palestinians as less pro-Israeli than Bill Clinton. That in turn may be enough to deter them from a unilateral declaration of statehood. The third requirement, however, is the toughest and ultimately the most important: recognition, by each side, of the negotiating limits on the other, and the ability of the leaders to persuade their peoples that, sooner or later, they are doomed to strike a compromise.

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