Four years ago, Baruch Goldstein changed forever the complexion of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. In the days before he opened fire on Ramadan worshippers, Mr. Goldstein told friends that he was about to perform a dramatic deed that would change the face of the region.
At first glance, the relationship between Goldstein and Saddam Hussein would seem to be a tenuous one. Yet, like Goldstein, Saddam has precipitated momentous changes in the Middle East, and like Goldstein, he has forever transformed relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
In the days immediately after the massacre, the Rabin government had an opportunity to redeem Goldstein's act, and in so doing to strike at the critical obstacle obstructing the realization of genuine Palestinian sovereignty. There was a majority in his Cabinet favoring the removal of the 400-odd settlers in Hebron, most of them children, all of them believers in Hebron's destiny as a Jewish city.
The circumstances were favorable to evacuation. The settlement movement found itself on the defensive after the murders. In the pockets of Jewish settlement in Hebron, settlers were unprepared to mobilize massive opposition to their removal. Nor had Israelis yet begun to engage in a tortured debate about the torn allegiance of citizen-soldiers commanded to remove Jews from their homes in Greater Israel.
Faisal Husseini, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's representative on the West Bank, was one of many Palestinians calling for a revision of the terms of the Oslo accord, which excluded settlements and settlers from the diplomatic agenda until negotiations on a final settlement began. "There is no way of taking peace and the settlers together. It's either the settlers or peace," Mr. Husseini said.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin never wavered in his rejection of this course - choosing, in Husseini's calculus, settlers over peace - for the very reasons that supporters favored it. Mr. Rabin was steadfast in his determination that the Oslo process protect, rather than endanger, settlements. He was determined not to premise diplomacy with Mr. Arafat on the removal of settlements, and certainly not as a consequence of the furor created by Goldstein.
Orthodox Muslims in the Hamas movement were singularly affected by the Goldstein massacre. Until then, activists in the military wing of Hamas or Islamic Jihad concentrated their actions against Palestinian collaborators. They sent knife-wielding fanatics into Israel to kill and be killed. They hit Israeli military targets, attacking Israeli troops on patrol, kidnapping and killing border policemen and Israeli internal security forces. For many years, they were known for attacking only military targets.
Goldstein changed this. Only in the wake of the murders did Hamas make the decision to emulate the suicide bombers from Lebanon's Hizbullah. The suicide bombings in Israel - 16 to date - prompted a harsh Israeli response. Both Israeli and Palestinian patience with the "peace process" has been exhausted by the cycle of intensified violence unleashed by Goldstein.
TODAY, in the aftermath of Saddam's latest march to the brink, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the popularity of his gloomy vision of a future dominated by Arabs armed with chemical and biological weapons and intent on Israel's destruction, are stronger than ever.
"The government never had it as good as it did during this crisis," charged opposition Knesset member Yossi Sarid, "because under all the nylon sheeting it was possible to hide the genuine and severe problems which Netanyahu doesn't want to and isn't capable of dealing with."
The Israeli media are full of reports of popular Palestinian support for Saddam in his now-postponed face-off with the US. Once again, Israelis have witnessed scenes reminiscent of the Gulf War, when Palestinians cheered Scud missiles aimed at Israel.
Arafat, warned by Netanyahu and the Clinton administration to suppress this cry for deliverance from Israel's grip - a feat that peace-process diplomacy has failed to accomplish - couldn't contain such expressions of popular Palestinian sentiment.
Saddam has offered Netanyahu a golden opportunity to lead Israel away from a negotiated arrangement with the Palestinians. Never one to miss such an opportunity, Netanyahu can be expected to say, "I told you so - the Arabs are the same Arabs." And Israelis, still fumbling with cumbersome gas masks, appear ready to listen.
* Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.