The explosion of a car bomb in Jerusalem yesterday jarred - but apparently did not derail - a high-level and encouraging push for peace after five weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The blast, which killed two and left 10 people injured, came as Israelis and Palestinians waited for their leaders to make simultaneous statements calling for an end to the violence.
But the blast - as yet unexplained - was not the only reminder of the monumental task facing Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Many observers on both sides are skeptical about the ability and inclination of the leaders to pacify the situation. With attitudes hardening on both sides, it sometimes seems that men who once tried to lead their people toward peace are now being led by the streets.
The simultaneous announcement, postponed at this writing, was meant to restart stalled negotiations after heavy clashes on Wednesday brought the simmering conflict as close as it has come yet to open war.
For several hours, Israeli soldiers fought with Palestinian police and gunmen near Bethlehem leaving five people dead, including two Israeli soldiers and one Palestinian policeman.
Thursday morning seemed more hopeful, as both sides worked at easing tensions. Israeli forces pulled back from some positions, and Palestinian police reined in demonstrators.
The restraint was the fruit of a meeting late Wednesday night between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Afterward both sides issued statements calling for peace, but the highlight was to have been additional statements, set to be broadcast at the same time, from the leaders themselves: Mr. Arafat and the current Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.
At press time, Israel said the arrangement worked out between Arafat and Mr. Peres, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, was still in effect. But Mr. Barak also said the responsibility for the bombing lay with the Palestinian Authority.
The intention of the Palestinians was unclear, but their officials said the Israeli charges were unfounded. Peres said his agreement with Arafat was meant to allow for a 48-hour hiatus without violence or funerals, which have become the trigger for a now-routine cycle of demonstrations, further deaths, and more funerals. Since Sept. 28, more than 160 people have died, most of them Palestinian.
In the wake of the new understanding, Israel decided to postpone retaliation for the deaths of its soldiers, pulled back some tanks, and eased curfews and closures on Palestinian villages in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement calling on its people to "stick to peaceful ways in all circumstances," and its police fanned out across intersections and in areas that have become regular flashpoints. But even as forces on both sides worked to enforce the agreement, clashes erupted in Gaza and two Palestinians died in fighting in the West Bank. The militantly anti-Israeli groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad voiced their objection to the ceasefire, and members of Fatah, Arafat's faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization, were skeptical.
Fares Kadoura, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a Fatah leader in the West Bank, argued that agreements about security weren't enough to ensure peace on the ground.
The two sides must show progress on the core issues that divide them before Palestinians end their unrest, he says. "If the [Israelis] agree about political elements, I think maybe we will have silence in the field." But without this kind of discussion, he adds, speaking by telephone from a funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, "maybe we will have one week of silence, but after that we will have more violence in the region."
The thinking on the Israeli side is the mirror opposite. "They don't understand we're not going to talk about politics until the violence stops, but maybe they think the violence will make us talk," says Joseph Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence official who is now an independent political analyst.
This impasse, like almost every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the result of the parallel universes the two sides inhabit. The Israelis assert the violence is orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership to achieve an advantage in negotiations. Therefore they refuse to talk until the violence is stopped.
But the Palestinians say the unrest is the result of frustration with a flawed peace process, compounded by Israel's use of force in handling demonstrations, and is an expression of popular will.
"People don't want to have a renewal of anything with the Israelis without substantive change," says Abdul Jawad Saleh, a Palestinian legislator and Arafat critic. "People won't listen [to this appeal for calm on the ground] if Arafat doesn't come up with substantive change. So far, there is no withdrawal from [the land Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war], no Jerusalem, no return of refugees."
But attitudes are hardening among Israelis and the idea of Israel and Palestine existing side by side seems more and more unwise. "I don't think a state is the solution," says Ephraim Inbar, a political scientist who has long been conservative in his approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"People say give them something, then they'll have something to lose. They've never had so much to lose as today. The more you give them, the more they want. It whets their appetites, and there's plenty of appetite and hatred."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society