Leading Article: Why reason must prevail

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The Independent Online
A YOUNG Israeli woman was on the radio yesterday endorsing the Hebron massacre last Friday. Dr Baruch Goldstein, she said, was right to carry out his slaughter of Palestinians at prayer.

Her attitude provides a chilling reminder of the deeply irrational hatreds that still confront Middle East peace-makers. Extremists among the Israeli settlers are impervious to reason or humanity. Their racism closely mirrors that of the Nazis. Dr Goldstein himself told a radio interviewer that the Arabs were 'like an epidemic - the pathogens that infect us', which is almost exactly what Hitler said about the Jews. Incredible though it may seem, this twisted murderer is now a hero to many in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, where he lived.

He was also the ally of Palestinian extremists in that he shared with them a wish to destroy the peace negotiations. There is now a danger that he may be successful. The immediate effect of the massacre is further to weaken the authority of Yasser Arafat. He has long been accused of accepting a deal that provides insufficient protection for his people, and his critics will now claim vindication. They will also be active in spreading the stories of collusion by the Israeli army, whether true or not. And since they regard Israel as a pawn of the West, their anger will spread more widely.

Inevitably, they will attempt revenge. Then the Israeli government will also have a more volatile public to contend with, and will find it even more difficult to impose the necessary controls on settlers. Such controls are the key to containing the situation, especially in Hebron, where the settlements have been placed defiantly in an Arab town, breeding extremism on both sides. Ultimately, the settlements will have to be closed altogether. If the government could find the courage to do so now, it would make an even better contribution to the negotiations.

Its initial reaction has been encouraging. It has condemned the killings, announced the release of about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, and promised to disarm and restrict the extremists. But if Arafat is to recapture enough authority to continue negotiating, he will need more concessions. The more he receives, the stronger the reaction will be from the settlers, but that is the price the government will have to pay for having been too lax until now.

Once anger has died down, it may be possible to extract some good from the tragedy. When both sides in the peace process look at the alternatives, they will find that they must continue negotiating. The Israeli government will then have an excuse to lean on the settlers, which it should do anyway, and Arafat will have grounds for demanding more security for his people, which will make it easier for him to answer his critics. Whether reason will prevail in this way is highly uncertain - it seldom does in the Middle East - but the alternative is to grant a disastrous victory to Goldstein.