Leading article: Can Israel's playboy pass the maturity test?

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The Independent Online
Bloody reality has caught up with Israel's political playboy. Much hangs this weekend on Benjamin Netanyahu's capacity to grow up. He must act to end to the murderous skirmishing of the past few days. The security of the nation of Israel depends on starting what must come to be - the establishment of some enduring relationship with the Palestinian leadership. It does not have to be warm, nor photogenic. But it does require concession and compromise, by an Israeli government that seems unable to offer even the tiniest gesture.

On Mr Netanyahu's rapid maturing turns the interim stability of the Middle East. With the calming benefit of distance we have no need to overestimate the importance of recent events. Human disaster that they are, West Bank deaths do little or nothing to upset the geopolitical balance in the region. They may make the survival of moderate regimes in Cairo and Amman marginally less likely but probably do little to affect attitudes and interests of Damascus and Riyadh. American warships still patrol the Persian Gulf. Islamic fundamentalism in Kabul has no need of this fuel to combust.

But this week's fatal mayhem in the streets of Bethlehem, Nablus and East Jerusalem could have been avoided. Even after Mr Netanyahu's May election victory there was nothing inevitable about the welling-up of Palestinian resentment and the loss of authority by Yasser Arafat which is, in part, the cause of this outbreak of armed conflict.

The root cause is that Mr Netanyahu has been hemmed in by the savage hardliners in his right-of-centre coalition cabinet. The saga of the Jerusalem tunnel speaks volumes. Why was it opened now, a decade after it was prepared for tourist use, and immediately after acts of clear provocation? Mr Netanyahu seems, gratuitously, to have wanted to play to only one gallery - the religious extremists who make claim to the entire territory from Tel Aviv to Allenby Bridge. Then to disappear off on a joy ride to Britain and Germany without apparently preparing for what Israeli security services must have reported was an inevitable Palestinian response? Is Mr Netanyahu is really so naive, not to say amateur, in the management of domestic affairs?

The Israeli Prime Minister won the election with the tactic of ignoring the Palestinians. In spite of the almost pathetic pleading of Arafat to be taken seriously, in spite of the obvious growth in popular anger among the Palestinian population at large, the tactic has remained the same: close your eyes and two million of them would fade into invisibility. Roads could be built, concrete foundations laid and the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza would, magically, part for ever. Like the blank face of the Western Wall, Likud and its allies have presented themselves as stonily immovable on key issues, such as the withdrawal of troops from Hebron as promised by the Perez government and the expansion of West Bank settlements.

Now that wall has been undermined. The Israeli government can move in one of only two directions. It could reoccupy the autonomous areas, clamping the grip of martial law on to the West Bank and Gaza, and thereby provoking the revival of intifada and the return of the bus bombers. Yasser Arafat goes, either assassinated or banished to the margins of a scene in which Hamas and the ultras take over. In such circumstances Israel's moral credit in the West would fall perilously low. Even jejune British defence secretaries (recall Michael Portillo's effusions during the Israeli assault on southern Lebanon earlier this year) would find it hard to offer support. Israeli politicians behave as if they can get away with murder because, in the case of the United States, they can play the election timetable. But after November even President Clinton will take a dim and distant view of this politically backward behaviour.

The other way forward is to attempt to build, through Arafat, structures of Palestinian power and responsibility - moves that, yes, bring once again into prospect the creation of a Palestinian political entity. In present circumstances a weak Arafat does nothing to benefit the Israeli cause: on the contrary, it strengthens the insurgent drive. If Arafat's condition for talks this weekend is suspension of the tunnel project, it would be a small, small price for the Israelis to pay. Indeed, no real price at all.

The Israeli leadership faces a clear test. Does Mr Netanyahu have what it takes to extract this little concession from the religious hardliners, knowing how much support he could get, if needed, from Labour and the Knesset moderates? If he fails to make the attempt, we can mark him as the merely factional leader of a grouping within a torn and agonised nation, a factional leader who has abandoned all efforts to lead the Israeli nation as a whole. Let him not forget that that nation elected him by the slimmest of margins. Under those circumstances, his role is to create a real majority, and for that there is only one road - the slow and stony road toward peace.

Accommodation has to be reached, sooner or later, with the Palestinians. That must mean movement more or less down the road opened in Oslo with the signing of the peace accords. If Mr Netanyahu has some kind of alternative - he claims to be a free enterprise liberal who may have thoughts about emancipation of the Palestinians by economic growth - then let us hear it. He owes even the most dogmatic of his fellow Israelis, let alone the pragmatic majority, some picture of just how they are going to live with their Palestinian neighbours in years to come. The only alternative is recurrent anarchy, the constant presence of regional danger - and then death - day after bloody day, more unnecessary Middle Eastern dead. No one wants it. What the world wants is for Israel to understand that.