Get Peace Back on Track

The violence that exploded last week in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza knocked the Middle East peace process far off track. But repair is possible - if determined, even-handed diplomacy is undertaken by the United States as mediator, and if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to prove that he means it when he says his government will honor the peace commitments of its predecessor.

The outcome of the summit between Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is still iffy at this writing. Washington's willingness to host the meeting is helpful - particularly if the Clinton administration nudges participants, telling them what it wants to see accomplished.

Netanyahu has stated his priorities, starting with a renunciation of violence and proceeding to items long on the agenda, such as reduced Israeli control of the West Bank city of Hebron and greater freedom of travel for Palestinians who have jobs in Israel. He also called for intensive, ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority until agreements on these and other issues are reached.

That's all to the good. But is this serious peacemaking or rhetorical maneuvering? To date, the Israeli leader's response to the crisis has been to heap blame on Mr. Arafat for not keeping a firmer leash on his police, some of whom joined the fight on the side of the Palestinian protesters. Netanyahu should also be concerned about removing the provocations to protest.

The latest among these: the tunnel under a portion of Jerusalem's Old City that sparked violence when a new entrance was opened in the Muslim Quarter. Symbolism quickly overtook fact in this matter, and the religious and ethnic passions surrounding the ancient city rushed to the surface.

Netanyahu's government has refused to consider closing the tunnel, viewing that as a cave-in to violence and possibly a threat to Israel's very existence. But what really threatens Israel and its neighbors is the inability to see that peace won't come without concrete steps to show goodwill - and that there is no lasting security without peace.

Both sides must return to a common agenda for peace. The US-sponsored meeting could aid this return. Most important, there has to be a recognition, particularly on Netanyahu's part, that clear forward steps on issues like Hebron are the surest way to reduce violence over the long haul.

Hebron raises thorny questions, with a corps of radical Israeli settlers ensconced in the city's center. But this difficulty has already been dealt with in negotiations. An Israeli garrison will remain to protect the settlers. Netanyahu says he wants to renegotiate this arrangement. But when does renegotiation become a tactic for obstruction?

The Oslo agreement has gotten as far as it has - despite battering from extremists on both sides - because Israeli and Palestinian leaders painfully built trust. Though they may have been far apart on details, they knew they shared an agenda.

Despite its hard line, Netanyahu's Likud Party has in the past shown itself capable of doing something remarkable for peace. Now the partners are the Palestinians and Arafat, not Egypt and Anwar Sadat. But if this opportunity is lost, even that earlier triumph could begin to crumble.

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