Leading Article: Peace talks jeopardised with Israel's help

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL has long practised a policy of punitive retaliation against those it identifies as its enemies. In emotional terms, that is understandable. Israel is a country the size of Wales surrounded by hostile Arab states that were long dedicated to eradicating it. Whether it is now a wise policy and in Israel's long-term interests is doubtful. De facto if not de jure, its neighbours have accepted its right to exist within its pre-1967 borders, even if not to occupy and settle the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

Israel proved its willingness to negotiate by making peace with Egypt in 1978. Under the present Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, its government has professed its dedication to the peace process initiated by the Bush administration. That process, now 20 months old and in suspension, can only have been damaged by the ferocity of Israel's response to the recent killing of seven of its soldiers by guerrillas in the so-called security zone in southern Lebanon.

This buffer zone, set up when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon following their abortive invasion in 1982, is controlled by a proxy Lebanese militia backed by Israeli troops. Their continuing occupation provides a perfect focus for what could either be called terrorism or legitimate resistance. Its most effective practitioners are Hizbollah, the radical Shia movement largely financed by Iran and tacitly supported by Syria.

It is against Hizbollah guerrillas and supporters that Israel's attacks since Sunday have been chiefly directed, producing in response a predictable hail of Hizbollah rockets on northern Israel. Israel's latest tactic appears to be to use artillery bombardment to create a mass flight of refugees from villages north of the buffer zone. Mr Rabin apparently believes that to flood Beirut with refugees will put pressure on the Lebanese government to suppress Hizbollah. A more likely effect is to boost recruitment to the 'Party of God' - and to the (fundamentalist Islamic) Hamas movement in the occupied territories. As for the morality of Israel's methods, it appears to be based on the doctrine of the end justifying the means, and ignores the inevitability of violence begetting more of the same.

It was always expected that Mr Rabin would, as Prime Minister, sustain his reputation for toughness in response to Arab attacks. The matching hope was that, as a Labour man, he would be much more imaginative than his Likud predecessors in moving towards an agreement on the future of the occupied territories. That hope has been bitterly disappointed. The rights and movements of the Arabs there have been even more harshly curtailed and restricted than previously.

It is no surprise that the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has hastened back to Washington for consultations before making his scheduled visit to Middle Eastern capitals. The Syrians would have found it hard enough to move towards a deal with Israel without some balancing Israeli gesture towards genuine autonomy for the Palestinians. The prospects for progress look even dimmer when Israeli warplanes have killed several Syrian soldiers in Lebanon. Hizbollah officials have admitted their attacks were designed to sabotage the peace talks. Israel's actions appear to be playing into their hands.