LEADING ARTICLE: No turning back for Israel

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The Independent Online
There can be scant consolation for the Prime Minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, in the advice universally conveyed to him by the dozens of governments which have sent their condolences after the latest grotesque suicide attacks. At least 27 more Israelis are dead. The fanatics of the Islamic Jihad or Hamas rejoice. Those dedicated to building peace, like Mr Peres, know that there is no choice but to go soldiering on.

No choice because Israel and the Palestinians are locked in step towards a new understanding over territory and the mutual recognition of their identity. No choice because, whatever Israeli government emerges from elections on 29 May, the Palestinian authority and its elected President, Yasser Arafat, are now realities on the regional map. And no choice because this Israeli government, along with Mr Arafat, knows that to falter now is to invite grave consequences.

Both Mr Peres and Mr Arafat have fine political calculations to make over the weeks ahead. The Israeli leader must act tough enough on terrorism to keep a grip on his lead in the opinion polls ahead of Israel's election. A victory for Mr Peres is the result that would best serve the long- term interests of Israel and the aspirations of the Jewish people. The return of the Israeli right would signal only another intermission of stasis, to be inevitably broken by war or upheaval at a time perhaps less propitious for Israel's strategic and security interests. So Mr Peres holds destiny in his hands.

On the Palestinian side, Mr Arafat must make his calculations, too. The PLO had engaged in a dialogue with the Muslim fundamentalist leadership of Hamas to persuade it of the folly of terrorism. Yesterday Mr Arafat had to send his police force to round up 60 Hamas agitators, no doubt with little gentleness. Politics inside his small fiefdom is volatile. To outsiders he must not be seen to give in to Hamas. Yet he must also avoid alienating his own hardliners.

The lesson for both Mr Arafat and Mr Peres is that the Islamic extremists prosper when there seems little progress towards justice for Palestinians under Israeli rule. They weaken whenever the peace negotiations are seen to yield results. In Gaza, for example, Hamas is slowly coming to terms with the reality of a Palestinian government. There is a place for the Islamic trend within a Palestinian state, but it can only be found through showing that compromise and negotiation work better than violence.

It has always been unwise to identify too many parallels between the Arab-Israeli dispute and the troubles in Northern Ireland. But here is a clear comparison between cases. In London and Jerusalem bombs explode, innocents die and political leaders step falteringly towards their peaceful objective. If Israel were to turn its back on the path set out by Shimon Peres and his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, it would be a tragically mistaken vote for vengeance at the expense of peace.