Leading Article: The bitter price of making peace

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The Independent Online
Israel has paid a dreadful price for its decision to make peace with the Palestinians after almost half a century of war. The suicidal slaughter of soldiers and civilians at the weekend was but the latest in a toll of casualties far higher than Israelis witnessed in the years of hostile stalemate. From the President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, to the opportunist Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition, the voices of dissent urge inflexibility, delay and repression. These are compelling sentiments at a time of national trauma. But they are wrong for Israel and for the Palestinians. Much of the blame for the decay in the Middle East peace process rests with its two architects. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel made a great and necessary leap of faith when he did a deal with Yasser Arafat. But since that initial daring he has reverted to the old fox-like instincts of Israeli negotiators - to squeeze every last concession from a battered foe. Instead of advancing Israel's search for peace and security, this dismal strategy could end by undermining it.

As for Mr Arafat, he has reduced intelligent and capable Palestinians to despair. Bombastic, inefficient and habitually averse to honouring his commitments, Mr Arafat has shed none of the habits acquired in decades as a guerrilla chieftain on the run. Itwas all too characteristic that the establishment of his secret police took priority over the economic planning so desperately needed if foreign aid is to benefit the Palestinian people.

Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat now need to take radical steps if the enemies of their policy are not to triumph. If ever there was an effective unholy alliance in in the Middle East, it is surely that between the rabid Jewish settler extremists and the self-immolating zealots of Islamic Jihad.

That is why Mr Rabin must shed his reticence. Israel must start freeing its Palestinian prisoners. Israeli troops should thin out their presence in the West Bank as a prelude to withdrawal. The illegal construction of Jewish settlements must end - including, let it be noted, the concrete belt encircling Arab Jerusalem.

For his part, Mr Arafat must accept that elections in the Palestinian areas should come as soon as possible. He must allow his cadre of decent and talented Palestinian administrators to govern and thus deny the Islamic extremists easy propaganda.

A timetable is now necessary to link withdrawal of Israeli troops to Palestinian elections and negotiations on the final status of the self-rule areas. Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat braved the fury of their hardliners to make peace because both knew that in thelong term their peoples had no alternative. A hundred suicide bombers cannot demolish that reality.

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