Leading Article: Atonement for Yom Kippur?

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The Independent Online
THE people of Israel have just marked Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, established in the book of Leviticus and observed each year by Jews of almost every degree of religious conviction. Twenty-one years ago, Yom Kippur gave its name to a war when the armed forces of Egypt and Syria fell upon Israel while the country dwelt in the solemn hush enjoined by the Bible. But this year Israeli Jews contemplated a strangely tranquil landscape. For just as Yom Kippur ends the 10 days of penitence, so Israel may be coming to the end of its state of siege.

The most public expression of change is the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho and the establishment in those enclaves of a Palestinian government. Too little, cried one set of Jeremiahs, and too late. For these critics, the compromise between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin constituted a betrayal of the Arab cause, an abandonment of dreams cherished in the Palestinian diaspora since 1948. On the Israeli right, prophecies of doom accompanied predictions of fratricidal bloodshed. Israelis and Palestinians continue to die, while the painfully slow process of negotiation drags on.

Yet although this new status quo remains delicate, it has shown itself to be surprisingly resilient. One reason is that Israeli policy planners can look around at their neighbours and see opportunity on all sides. To adopt the military language favoured by Israeli hawks, the southern flank is well-secured. Peace with Egypt may not be infused with warmth but it has proved durable. The accords with Jordan enshrine a long-established state of non-belligerency.

Northwards, just as in Henry Kissinger's day, Syria holds the key to peace. The present US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has quietly devoted constant attention to Damascus, often to little media acclaim. It may even be plausible to predict a breakthrough between Syria and Israel, followed in turn by a settlement with Lebanon. A withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied Lebanese soil would ensure thereafter the swift termination of Hizbollah's political and military sway in that still volatile country.

This would be rich reward indeed. There could still be violent upheaval and disruption. The author David Grossman put the dilemma well: 'Can we believe, may we demand of the Israeli Jew, whose life is surviving from one war to the next, that he act in opposition to what seem to be his basic survival instincts, instincts that have proven themselves in so many battles?' Mr Rabin has dared to demand. So far, he has no cause for atonement.

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