Middle East mayhem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 12:00am

Despairing onlookers might conclude that the Israelis and Palestinians deserve each other now that the two sides once again have transformed an opportunity for peace into deadly violence. About 90 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed since fighting broke out in the wake of failed negotiations and a subsequent provocation by a leading right-wing Israeli politician. This has produced the worst violence since the so-called peace process began seven years ago and the end is not yet in sight.

However, such a conclusion would be all too cynical. No one should face the bloodshed and fear which now dominate Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and which make prospects for normal life there so bleak. Those who can exert positive influence in the region must do so urgently, before the shooting escalates across national borders.

That process, in fact, is well under way. President Bill Clinton is exploring the possibility of a quick Middle East trip to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The presidents of Egypt, France, Russia and Syria, plus UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, have become directly involved. There is no shortage of would-be peacemakers, all eager to halt the unrest.

But an old and basic problem remains; there is little evidence that the parties themselves are willing to strike a deal that both Arabs and Jews will accept. Their rival nationalisms, stoked by differences of religion, still compete for the same small portions of the former Palestine. Neither side is yet wholly reconciled to the concept of accepting major compromises as the price of peace and political stability.

The current fighting came after Mr Arafat rejected outright some Israeli proposals that went far beyond any terms offered by prior governments, provisions which many Israelis consider excessive.

One who believes that is opposition leader Ariel Sharon, whose provocative visit - accompanied by military protectors - to an Islamic holy site became the catalyst for the current fighting. He has long opposed offering generous peace terms and presumably hoped to prevent negotiating success.

He has succeeded all too well. Each side has temporarily put aside internal disputes to unite against the other; the atmosphere is thoroughly poisonous. To survive in office, Mr Barak may have to make Mr Sharon his foreign minister, perhaps killing all chances for peace anytime soon.

The Middle East parties have seldom shown the political courage and foresight needed to resolve differences on their own. Once again, their fate depends largely upon what outsiders can do for them.