A Heart for Peace

For peace to be a "process" - something that develops and has momentum - both sides have to want it to work.

In the Middle East, there are always those who don't want peace to work, who will in fact commit horrible deeds to thwart its working. That was sadly seen again in the Dec. 11 drive-by killing of an Israeli settler mother and son near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In the wake of that tragic event, rejectionists on both sides have tried to seize the offensive. Palestinian radical elements, such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which claimed "credit" for the Ramallah killings), have held rallies and reaffirmed their determination to wreck the peace process.

Extremists on the Israeli side reiterate their own messages of angry triumphalism. Zealots within the settler movement clamor for new government support. And Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, much more than his Labor predecessors, hears that call.

Mr. Netanyahu, citing the Ramallah incident, has chosen to reinstate government incentives - such as lower income taxes - that encourage Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. This follows the recent approval of Jewish housing in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

In this regard, Netanyahu is reversing the peace momentum established by former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. They didn't roll back the settlements - far from it. Population in the settlements increased under them. But they held off new building, and they didn't wave settlement policy in the faces of their Palestinian peace partners, knowing the settlements were a thorny issue that would eventually have to be sorted out in arduous talks. Palestinian negotiators knew this too, and completed some deals - like that concerning Hebron - which included extraordinary measures to protect Israeli settlers.

That could be done as long as there was a crucial measure of trust, a quality that helps put "process" into peacemaking. Now trust appears to be quickly eroding. The Hebron agreement is stuck just short of implementation, with the Israeli government demanding further security guarantees and the Palestinians loath to give another inch because they have no assurance that further concessions will gain them anything. How can there be "final status" talks about things such as jurisdictional boundaries, the nature of statehood, and, hardest of all, Jerusalem, if Hebron seems impossible? Palestinians, clearly, are asking themselves if this Israeli government really has any interest in a final, lasting accord.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he would honor past agreements and move toward final talks. But he, clearly, wants them on his own terms - with no acknowledgment, even tacit, that the Palestinians' goal of a viable state of their own could be realized. Some may see that as admirable candor, but it treads on the sensitivities of Palestinians, dampening their incentive for further progress. Still, the prime minister and the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, are in contact with each other. Publicly, they're still committed to complete the Hebron deal and move on to other issues.

That commitment urgently needs bolstering by the chief patron of the peace process, the United States. Washington has to be as unequivocal in its criticism of expanded settlement activity by Israel as it is in its condemnation of murderous acts by Palestinian extremists. Netanyahu has to be reminded that the US still endorses "land for peace." Mr. Arafat has to be warned that loosened restraints on radical groups in his community can never serve the ends of peace.

This is no time for arms-length exhorting. Hands-on, constant tending of the peace process is needed. Mr. Clinton's new foreign-policy team has an emergency salvage job ahead on the Middle East. There's evidence of deepening US concern in State Department responses to Israeli settlement policies, but concrete American moves, including renewed use of aid leverage, may be needed. A US-Israeli loan-guarantee program was used by the Bush administration to drive home American distaste for the settlement policies of the last Likud government. The guarantees were reduced by the amount of loan money going to settlement activity. That approach, or others tied to US assistance, should be considered. The point is not to punish Israel, but to make it clear that a policy of settlement expansion runs contrary to the American interest in peace and will have costs.

The Holy Land can realize its promise as a cradle of civilization and progress. But an element of spiritual insight must be added to the hard-headed business of crafting a peace.

The needed "process" emanates, ultimately, from the heart. There must be some leaven of compassion, of the joint recognition of suffering. Then, with awakened sensitivity to the needs of the other side, the process of peace can resume. And the prayers of those of all faiths who know that God's will is peace can help.

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