St. LOUIS, Oct. 8--The deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence that started when the head of Israel's opposition Likud Party, Ariel Sharon, visited the Muslim part of Jerusalem's Temple Mount with a huge police escort on Sept. 28 seems as though it could have been scripted by the political extremists on both sides. How else to explain that--despite all the deaths and surges of violence in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel itself, and, of course, Jerusalem--Sharon appears happy, Hamas and the Muslim religious extremists seem pleased, and Yasser Arafat is heaving sighs of relief?
Sharon, long the bad boy of the Israeli right, is hated by the Palestinians for his role in chasing the PLO out of Lebanon. He has as much as admitted that his visit to the Temple Mount was a deliberate provocation and rejected any suggestion that he apologize for what followed. Given that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just been cleared of charges of graft and was apparently looking to take back the leadership of Likud, Sharon could have used the Temple Mount visit to strengthen his own position and demonstrate his and his party's hard-line opposition to any concessions negotiated by Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Hamas--part terrorist group, part fundamentalist Muslim sect, and part philanthropy--has long declared itself irrevocably opposed to all negotiations with Israel. It has become an advocate of unremitting violence against Israel and Israelis. Israeli intelligence has warned that an increased clandestine flow of weapons has recently been going to Hamas and its friends, and that stockpiles or arms and munitions were being prepared for the next uprising. Many of those weapons, plus those in the hands of the Palestinian police, appeared in the current fighting. At any event, the Palestinian extremists got what they wanted out of the violence.
This is what Israeli extremists also wanted: an end--they hope, permanently--to the peace talks.
It is often the case that, when warring parties come close to making peace, extremists on both sides turn to violence to prevent that from happening. They have a very good reason for doing so: Peace puts them out of business. That has been true in Northern Ireland, and it is and has been true throughout the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Heard from Palestinian spokespersons is the argument that as the first Intifada (revolt) of 1987-1993 forced concessions from Israel, so would another, perhaps even more violent round force Israel back to its pre-1967 lines and "return" Jerusalem to Arab hands.
Arafat may not have much reason to smile, but he appears visibly relieved by the recent turn of events. At the least, the new violence takes him off the hook: Now he doesn't have to make any concessions to the Israelis on the key issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian territory. Plus, it gets the United States, President Bill Clinton, and the pesky Madeleine Albright off his back, at least temporarily. Best of all, because of Sharon's provocation, Arafat could blame it all on the Israelis and get a round of condemnations on their heads for good measure. Perhaps we should not have been surprised that the peace talks broke down and that violence has again become the preferred form of dialogue. The Palestinians now portray Arafat as an unwilling participant at the last Camp David talks. They claim that Israel had long ago betrayed the Oslo accords, and that all those so-called "concessions" proposed by Barak and the United States to resolve the Jerusalem issue were nothing more than smokescreens to prevent the Palestinians from getting what is rightfully theirs. Comments by Arafat weeks ago that Israel really had no historical connections to Jerusalem, astonishing as they seemed at the time, signaled that the negotiations were over. One does not insult the people with whom one expects to make a deal. It is also clear that Arafat, perhaps thinking he could get a Clinton anxious for a diplomatic success to push Israel into further concessions, promised much more than he could ever deliver. Thus, by reverting to a position that no Israeli government, however liberal, could possibly accept, he guaranteed the failure of the negotiations, something he may have wanted from the beginning. Whether thereby he also saved himself and his regime, remains an open question. Arafat, Sharon, and the Palestinian and Jewish hard-liners may well be pleased with the new violence and the failure of the peace talks. They may think they have gained political advantage and are perfectly willing to accept more violence and death to make their point. What the rest of us have lost, perhaps irretrievably, is a moment where people of good will on both sides could hope to realize the peace the Holy land has always promised, but never delivered.