What matters most in the Middle East is peace on the ground

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Perhaps the threat by Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, to scrap the entire peacemaking process will succeed where negotiations, exhortations and summits have failed, and halt the spiral of violence that has taken more than 80 lives and threatens to undo seven arduous years of search for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. But it would be unwise to bank on it.

Perhaps the threat by Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, to scrap the entire peacemaking process will succeed where negotiations, exhortations and summits have failed, and halt the spiral of violence that has taken more than 80 lives and threatens to undo seven arduous years of search for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. But it would be unwise to bank on it.

The situation in the Middle East is as dangerous as at any time since the early 1980s. The risk is not of another full-scale war to join 1967 and 1973 in the history books. That is something no responsible Arab leader wants - not least because, after the demise of the Arabs' main patron, the Soviet Union, Israel's relative regional power is greater than ever.

Instead, Israel is embroiled today in three small wars: with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with previously docile Israeli Arabs in Israel proper, and with Islamic guerrillas, backed by Syria and Iran, on the all too familiar proxy battlefield of Lebanon. Unchecked, these are likely to breed equally familiar consequences: renewed instability in Lebanon, a strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism across the Arab world, more terrorism, more scope for Saddam Hussein to make mischief and - who knows? - as in 1973, an Arab oil embargo against Israel's overt supporters. Worst of all, Mr Barak's threat to scuttle the entire "peace process" would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The present crisis is born of a lethal cocktail of ingredients: the pent-up grievances of the Palestinian people, which the failure of July's summit at Camp David and now the domestic political weakness of President Arafat and Prime Minister Barak have compounded, inhibiting each man from making more concessions to the other and from standing up to the extremists in his own camp.

Apportioning blame, however, is futile. There have been mistakes, and most of them, it is true, have been on Israel's side, starting with the deliberately provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the holy Islamic sites of Jerusalem, followed by Mr Barak's refusal to join Yasser Arafat and Madeleine Albright at last Thursday's summit in Egypt, and his refusal to permit a genuinely neutral investigation into the causes of the latest violence.

But the Palestinians have erred, too, in failing to grasp the groundbreaking nature of the proposals on Jerusalem that Mr Barak took to Camp David, and in allowing themselves to be seduced by their own rhetoric - without a shred of evidence from past Israeli behaviour to support it - that with one more heave at the barricades, their cause could prevail.

Now, the violence must stop. No new magic ingredients are to hand. What is needed is the utmost restraint on the Israeli side, a realisation by Mr Arafat that his people have nothing to gain by prolonging the unrest, and the exertion by the United States of every diplomatic pressure, on Israel as well as the Palestinians, to broker peace. By "peace", we do not mean the agreement that President Clinton once dreamt would secure his place in history; what matters is a limited peace on the ground, to keep the faint, flickering hope of a final settlement alive. The Middle East must be wrested back from the extremists.

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