Leading Article: Still a chance for Arab-Israeli peace

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The Independent Online
THE MIDDLE EAST is now less stable than at any time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. As Conor Cruise O'Brien observed on these pages yesterday, Baruch Goldstein's act of barbarism at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on 25 February was not the act of a madman. It was a ruthless attempt, rational in its own murderous terms, to scupper last autumn's Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. No sober observer can any longer be confident that the agreement will be implemented. The question is: what can be done to make peace more likely?

Aside from risking a spiral of violence, which could set the clock back to the darkest days of the Seventies, the consequence of the Hebron massacre has been to give greater strength to extremists on both sides. Hardline Arabs are now insisting that Yasser Arafat, the PLO's chairman, should refuse to return to the negotiations until he receives two concessions from Israel: the full disarming of the 120,000 Jewish citizens who live on the West Bank, and a swift Israeli withdrawal from the settlements there that have been such a source of tension. If Mr Arafat goes to Washington without Palestinian support, the Oslo deal may become a dead letter.

But it is hard to see how Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, can accede to either of these demands. A recent poll suggested that 76 per cent of all Israelis, rightly fearful of Arab wrath in Hebron and elsewhere, are opposed to the disarming of the settlers. With a parliamentary majority of only one seat, Mr Rabin's government cannot afford to take such a step. In any case, settlers would still have access to automatic weapons while doing their annual military reserve duty. Bearing in mind that Israeli public opinion has required postponing discussion of the long-term future of the settlements until after implementation of the Oslo agreement, a government that makes hasty concessions may well be brought down.

Yet this impasse need not condemn Arabs and Israelis to a return to the old cycle of terror and counter-terror. All the participants in the peace process can do something to improve its chances of survival. Mr Arafat, who has so far refused to delegate to the local Palestinian leadership on the West Bank, could help to secure his position by providing the funds and the expertise needed in the shabby PLO offices there. He should also make clear his readiness to see elections held there by July - which he talked of last year, but has not referred to over recent months.

Mr Rabin cannot attribute his inadequate response to the massacre solely to political weakness. After the massacre, his government agreed to look into the question of banning Kach and Kahane Chai, the two most violent extremist groups. Three days later, a prominent Jewish extremist was still at large, giving interviews to news agencies via his mobile phone. Yet when Jews murdered a UN mediator in 1948, Israel's provisional government took only two days to outlaw their party and to arrest 200 suspected terrorists. Preventive detention today of a similar number of the most inflammatory and dangerous figures - balanced by a more humane treatment of angry Palestinians in the territories - would win widespread support.

The United States, which has offered to serve as host to the talks from now on, can itself help to ease the problem of the settlements. Most Israelis who now live in the territories moved there not out of support for Israeli expansionism but because of the housing subsidies offered by earlier governments. Many of them - perhaps a majority - could be lured back inside Israel's pre-1967 borders with grants. An increase of American aid for this purpose, and an insistence that no further building of settlements near Jerusalem can be tolerated, would help along the process of Israeli disengagement from the West Bank. In doing so, it would frustrate, rather than reward, Goldstein's murderous sympathisers.