Editorial comment: Middle East slide to war

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Editorial comment: Middle East slide to war Published: October 9 2000 18:54GMT | Last Updated: October 9 2000 19:28GMT

International mediators were flocking to the Middle East to try to prevent the world's bitterest conflict getting worse. The death toll of 89 people in 12 days, almost all Palestinian, mocks the words "peace process". Many declared wars have had a lower casualty rate. Every diplomatic muscle is now being strained just to put a lid on the violence.

Just when they needed to be strong to make a final peace, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been anything but. The weakness is now most marked in Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister. He allowed his right-wing rival, Ariel Sharon, to spark the latest explosion by a provocative visit to the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem, and then condoned what the United Nations security council has condemned as the Israelis' "excessive use of force".

Mr Barak has tarnished his own and Israel's image. He undermined his earlier achievement of withdrawal from south Lebanon in the new confrontation with the Hizbollah group holding three Israeli soldiers. And he has alienated Israeli Arab support at home. Now Mr Barak may even be ready to try to forge a grand coalition with Mr Sharon's Likud, spelling an end to the peace process.

The vicious over-reaction by Israeli forces to Palestinian rioting has helped mobilise Arab support and world sympathy behind Mr Arafat. So he looks stronger than when President Clinton basically blamed him for spoiling the Camp David talks. But this strength is illusory. Mr Arafat has merely ridden the wave of Palestinian outrage that, whatever the Israelis say, he is largely powerless to control.

Can the outside world provide these two men with the strength for peace that they seem unable or unwilling to summon up themselves? The timing of this crisis is awkward for the US, which is the usual mediator of first resort in the Middle East. Bill Clinton is a lame duck president, and his successor will be unknown for another month.

This partly explains the rush of other mediators to the region, like the UN's secretary general and Russia's foreign minister. But peace is as important as ever. The latest Israel-Palestinian clashes are already aggravating tensions across the Middle East, ranging from the Gulf states whom the US is pressing for cooperation on oil prices to North Africa whose political stability is important to southern Europe.

The West must remind Israelis and Palestinians that their peace process produced gains - partial self-government on the West Bank for the Palestinians and increased security for Israelis - which they would be insane to abandon. As things stand, the fight over holy places risks creating hell on earth.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 09, 2000

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