Leading Article: The need for a spirit of urgency

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The Independent Online
THE suicide bomb attack that killed and injured Israeli civilians in the town of Afula yesterday offered a warning of what may be to come before the Middle East peace negotiations are concluded and a portent of what will certainly occur if they fail. It bore the stamp of Hamas, a fundamentalist group that grew like wildfire among frustrated and bitter Palestinians during the dour years of right-wing government in Israel. In its execution and intent, however, it reproduced the tactics of the Islamic underground in Lebanon during the 1980s. There lies the peril and the prize.

The risks in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians remain enormous. But history took an irrevocable turn when Western armies shattered Arab radicalism in the Gulf war and American diplomacy propelled Arabs and Israelis to the peace conference in Madrid. The dramatic change in relations between Israel and the PLO grew from those seeds. Extremists in the Muslim world, who would feast upon poverty, dispossession and revenge, now see the unholy prospect of a peace accord threatening the basis for their political existence. The Israeli fundamentalists, who pervert even the bleak ideology of the late Menachem Begin, prophesy chaos and prepare for war. Thus, the massacre of innocent worshippers at Hebron by a Jewish gunman is succeeded by the slaughter of innocent children at Afula, two suicidal deeds committed in the name of religious and racial purity. Both these groups of zealots must be confounded.

The rewards for perseverance, bravery and, yes, turning the other cheek, are inestimable. A peace settlement between Israel and a nascent Palestine would begin to address the evils of 1948 and 1967. If it successfully grew to embrace Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, there would be laid the foundations of a tranquil and prosperous Levant not witnessed since Ottoman times. And as the century grew old, it would finally grant to the Jewish people a nation secure and accepted by its neighbours.

That is why the PLO was right quickly to condemn the Hamas bombing and why Israeli ministers were equally brisk to state that acts of bloodshed would not avert them from their course. Yet both sides need to become infected with a spirit of urgency. Israel should discard its obsessional pursuit of delaying detail. The PLO should make an agreement with Israel, not endless internal reconciliation, its priority.

There is a race against time in North Africa and the Middle East. Algeria has begun a descent into the abyss of religious civil war, while the hapless Egyptian government faces nothing less than an Islamic insurrection. Declining oil prices make Gulf monarchies poorer, thus less stable. The revolutionary regime in Iran, meanwhile, ignores its economic crisis to acquire new weapons and preach incitement. All the more reason, then, for Israel and the PLO to steel themselves against atrocities, to negotiate hard and to forge their own unbreakable peace.