The hardy few trying to rekindle peace amid the cinders of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were in despair yesterday after the new head of the Israeli army, Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, said the Palestinian "threat" had "cancer-like attributes".
A month after becoming chief of staff, he confirmed his hard-line image with an address in which he said Palestinian militancy posed a greater danger to Israel than Iraq and "must be fought to the bitter end". His remarks drew criticism from the centre and left in Israel although this focused more on the question of whether an army commander should be permitted to air his political views, rather than on their contents.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, a former general and fellow right-winger who has also talked of the need to crush the Palestinians, defended the comments as a "professional opinion". But there was gloom among international observers, who saw it as another retrograde step, and further evidence of the enormous uphill slope that faces those trying to find some form of diplomatic formula that will eventually lead to peace.
"We are moving further and further from a two-state solution," said one. "The debate is unbelievable. Remarks like these are now the absolute mainstream in Israel."
Other foreign observers saw it is likely to provoke further violence at a time when, say some analysts, the Palestinian militias are showing signs of conflict fatigue, and the realisation that they have lost sympathy within the international community because of the relentless use of suicide bombers.
In a speech to a rabbinical assembly, General Ya'alon reinforced his government's drive to get rid of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority by insisting that the 23-month conflict was a war, directed by them, and not a popular uprising. He said Palestinians were encouraged to turn to violence by Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon two years ago. The departure was widely seen in the Arab world as a victory for Hizbollah, the guerrilla force which led the fight against Israel's occupation.
Victory was vital for Israel's deterrence powers, General Ya'alon said, "so the Palestinian side will burn into its consciousness that there is no chance of gaining achievements by means of terror".
Palestinian officials were outraged, saying the general's statements undermined the "Gaza and Bethlehem First" understanding, a recent extremely fragile bilateral agreement to restore calm with a staged Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas in return for a crackdown on militants.
"These comments reflect the true intention of the Israeli government, which is the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the peace process, and the restoration of occupation," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official and former peace negotiator, said. "I hope it will serve as an eye-opener for Mr Blair and Mr Bush, so they can see the kind of people we are dealing with."
A leading Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, said the general's remarks "preclude any kind of peace-making and amount to a demand for unconditional capitulation".
General Ya'alon called the Palestinian conflict as an "existential" threat to Israel, saying the leadership does not recognise Israel's right to exist. The Palestinians make the same argument in reverse.
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