Terrifying glimpse

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2000, 12:00am

From the welter of accusations and denials that surround the latest tragedy being played out in the Middle East, one fact is incontrovertible. The fighting would never have been triggered if Ariel Sharon, hardline Israeli opposition politician had stayed away from the Islamic holy compound on Jerusalem's Temple Mount last Thursday.

He cannot have failed to realise his visit was likely to trigger Arab anger that could easily erupt into violence. It is impossible not to wonder whether that was the point of the trip. But perhaps Mr Sharon did not foresee his act igniting conflict in Israel itself. The vehemence of the anger from Arab citizens of Israel adds a new and dangerous dimension to the troubles.

In the past week there have been outbreaks of violence in normally peaceful Haifa. In Nazareth, as well as Umm al-Fahm - which is becoming a centre for Arab activism in Israel - Israeli soldiers have shot and killed Arab citizens. On previous occasions, an outbreak of violence on the West Bank or Gaza Strip has ultimately given new impetus to the peace process, but that pattern may now have been broken. A new radicalism is taking root among Israeli Arabs that could be difficult to defuse.

As President Bill Clinton has said, this violence gives a terrifying glimpse of how events might develop unless reality prevails. Jew and Arab moderates long for peace. But time is running out. Mr Clinton has only four more months in office; and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is struggling to bolster his tattered coalition before facing a likely no-confidence vote by the opposition when parliament reconvenes at the end of this month. With the possible return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the political scene, the balance of power in the Knesset might shift. Mr Netanyahu's previous tenure did little to advance peace. If negotiations cannot be restarted within weeks, they could be delayed for months, if not years.