Middle East Peace Rocked by Stones, Bullets, Mistrust

Israeli rigidity meets Arab frustration

As violence seared the streets of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, including unprecedented gun battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian police, concern over a total breakdown in the peace process reached new heights.

Yesterday the death toll reached at least 42, including five Israelis.

Palestinian frustration exploded Wednesday when Israel completed a tunnel next to Islam's third-holiest shrine. But the discontent centers more deeply on two issues: a dismal economy in the self-rule areas and refusal by Israel's new hard-line government to implement key parts of the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. And with 40,000 Palestinians now armed as police, the military equation has changed sharply from the 1987-93 intifadah (uprising).

Meanwhile, Israelis are concerned for their personal safety and about long-term security for the Jewish state.

The escalation from a war of words to true conflict is formidable in that it reopens a crisis of confidence for which neither side seems to have a ready solution, although both sides now face enormous pressures to find one. Israeli television reported yesterday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was returning early from a trip to Europe and had asked to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

For his part, Mr. Arafat faces tough Israeli demands to quell the fighting. If unable to do so, he would lose Israeli faith in his authority. But if he tries to forcefully suppress the fighting, he risks appearing outside the mainstream of Palestinian public opinion and loses legitimacy.

Mr. Netanyahu was returning under a crush of urgings to bring the situation under control. His constituency includes not just right-wing Israelis, but security-minded centrists who hoped he could make a safer peace.

Netanyahu is already under intense pressure over quickly deteriorating relations with Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. A full-scale ground conflict with the Palestinians could further erode his entire political agenda, which has included strong opposition to the Oslo peace accords.

The cornerstone of those accords has always been cooperation. Intelligence-sharing and joint patrols between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians police officers were to be a collaborative effort to keep the peace and throttle the extremists who reject reconciliation.

Palestinians, to whom the tunnel opening breaches their Islamic Waqf's authority over the area, say the tunnel was merely the last straw in a series of provocations: increased Jewish settlements, Israel's long overdue delay in withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron, and the refusal to accept any Palestinian claims on East Jerusalem.

According to Israeli government officials, the leader of Israel's intelligence service and a top Netanyahu adviser made a secret visit to Gaza last night to meet with Arafat and received a promise that he would try to quell the violence.

"He said he would try to do his best to cool the area, but so far it hasn't worked," said Shlomo Dror, an Israel liaison to the PA-controlled territories. "As far as we can see we're going back to the days of the intifadah."

Moreover, it was supporters of militant Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Group, who led a mass march from the West Bank Wednesday, encouraging protesters to attack checkpoints. In the basic equation that when Arafat stumbles his Islamic fundamentalist opponents gain, Arafat lost even more points when Hamas succeeds in leading the conflict.

On a second front, the fresh and unexpectedly heavy rounds of shooting pierced through a psychological barrier that was the core of coexistence. Israelis who wanted to believe that they could live and work with armed Palestinian officer - a word Israelis are suddenly using interchangeably with the word "soldiers" - are now fast loosing faith in that ideal. The Oslo accords sets up a framework for Palestinians and Israelis to continue living side by side, protected by dual patrols.

With a death of tenuous trust in the soldiers manning a checkpoint just 20 feet away from each other - as is the case throughout the territories - comes pointed questions about how the accords can continue to be implemented at all.

Israeli doves regrettably acknowledge that this plays directly into the hands of right-wing Israelis who said: "I told you so." Israeli critics of the peace process predicted Armageddon over the concept of willingly arming Palestinians and are now taking credit for their warnings that Israelis could not trust the Palestinians.

Arafat and other Palestinian leaders' remarks of the past weeks have been defensive of the new uprising. "The message today is very clear: The Palestinians are fed up with the world's silence," said Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator. "Ever since this government came to office, they were pushing the Palestinians into confrontation with settlement and land confiscation."

But Israeli Army officials say the ball is in the Palestinians' court.

"They have to try to stop these attacks," said one Army source. "And if the PA does not, the Israel Army will have to do it by itself. It will be bad for both of us."

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