Mon, 16 Oct 2000

Cycle of violence

It is still possible that outsiders will prove able to rescue Israelis and Palestinians from their own worst instincts, but the chances decrease with each new atrocity and violent retaliation. Despite the best efforts of a diverse crew of foreign leaders, the two sides have not yet come near reaching agreement to halt the bloodshed, let alone reviving their derailed search for peace.

The spectacle is both dangerous and thoroughly depressing. Around 100 people, mostly Arabs, have been killed in the current uproar and the death toll continues. As new names are added, a sense of outrage intensifies in both camps and the prospects for rational discourse decline accordingly. Evening the score becomes a prime objective for both Jews and Muslims as they survey wreckage across the crowded land they unavoidably must share.

The problem is compounded by the fact that both sides have faltering leadership. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is in uncertain health and may not truly command his own forces. His lack of a clear strategy exasperates his Arab and American friends and he has let events drift dangerously to ever higher levels of violence. He may be gambling for greater concessions whenever peace talks resume by letting the conflict intensify, but that tactic will not impress the beleaguered Israelis. In any case, his own side might not heed an Arafat call to cease fire.

Meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's weak minority government hopes to survive by bringing the opposition Likud Party into a coalition of national emergency. But Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who provoked the current violence, remains determined to sabotage generous peace terms. It seems unlikely that any Arab leader would trust him as a negotiating partner.

Despite all this, chances of major war remain slim; neighboring Arab states are too weak to fight Israel and many have other priorities. But low-level conflict could inflate the death count for weeks, spreading tension across the region, encouraging extremists and increasing antagonism on all sides. Prolonged turmoil will continue to push oil prices up and stock prices down.

U.S. President Bill Clinton and moderate Arab leaders hope to organize a Middle East summit to solidify a ceasefire and restart the peace effort. But with the belligerents not yet ready to call a halt, that summit remains an aspiration. Meanwhile, as they have for decades, the Israelis and Palestinians continue to prove they remain brave enough to wage war, but still lack the courage to make peace.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong