The wounds are deep, and the pain of this crisis will be felt for a long time

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The Independent Online

They awarded the Nobel prize for peace yesterday. But even if the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians and the US do hold a summit in Egypt this weekend, there is scant sign of that commodity making a rapid return to the Middle East. And even if the petrol bombs, the rifles and the helicopter gunships fall silent, the wounds inflicted by this crisis - and not just those on its direct participants - will be deep and lasting.

They awarded the Nobel prize for peace yesterday. But even if the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians and the US do hold a summit in Egypt this weekend, there is scant sign of that commodity making a rapid return to the Middle East. And even if the petrol bombs, the rifles and the helicopter gunships fall silent, the wounds inflicted by this crisis - and not just those on its direct participants - will be deep and lasting.

We must devoutly hope that, the paroxysm of violence spent, the combined efforts of Bill Clinton, Hosni Mubarak, the United Nations and the European Union can secure a truce in which the first bricks in the shattered edifice of peace can be re-assembled. That however may be rendered impossible if Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel's opposition Likud party, returns to office in an emergency government of national unity.

It is perfectly natural for a prime minister to seek the broadest possible backing in time of crisis - especially if that prime minister is Ehud Barak, whose Labour Party controls only 26 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. A truce whose terms are rejected by much of the opposition is unlikely to survive long, let alone a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians which, if it ever comes, will have to be accepted by the right, as well as left, of a divided country.

At this juncture, however, the appointment of Mr Sharon would send the worst possible signal. He is "unbalanced, adventurous, dangerous, undisciplined" - and that was a former Israeli chief of defence staff talking. To the Palestinians, he is the loathed figure blamed for the slaughter of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Israeli-backed militias in 1982, and who provoked this crisis with his "message of peace" visit last month to Temple Mount in Jerusalem. To moderate Arab leaders, it would be the clearest sign that Israel regards the peace process as dead and buried.

We must not forget these neighbouring Arab countries, whose restraint thus far offers one of the few tiny rays of encouragement. Their words have been fierce, but their deeds have been less so.

We tend to forget them because we assume that they want to avoid a full-scale Arab-Israeli war at all costs; we expect that Egypt's and Jordan's peace treaties with Israel, the cornerstones of what regional stability there is, will survive this turbulence. And to believe the Saudis - if not the jittery financial markets - neither will the oil weapon be unsheathed, in contrast to 1973.

But consequences there will be, nonetheless. The gravest threat to several of these rulers does not come from Israel, but from unrest on their own streets, as enraged protesters demand tougher action against the enemy that sent rockets and shellfire raining on Arab targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Unless tempers miraculously cool, something will have to give.

It may well be the sanctions against Saddam Hussein, which are already in the process of crumbling, partly because of the anti-American fury unleashed by Israel's action. It could be trouble for the younger, less experienced generation of rulers, like Bashar Assad in Syria or King Abdullah in Jordan, in whom much Western hope is invested. Or, most likely, Arab frustrations will boil over into terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. As events in the Yemen yesterday suggest, these targets could be British, as well. Whatever happens next, this Middle Eastern crisis will inevitably affect us all.

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