Why Now Is Not the Time to Press for Mideast Deal

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President Clinton's hopes of a legacy-defining Israeli-Palestinian peace deal were buried Sunday, along with 12-year-old Rami Aldura. The image of President Clinton presiding over a 1993 White House handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin may have been eclipsed by a more dramatic, reality-TV image of the state of relations between these two peoples beamed around the world Sunday: A terrified Aldura doing everything in his power to shrink his slender frame behind that of his cowering father, whose pleas for Israeli soldiers to cease fire are answered with a fusillade of bullets, leaving the boy's limp body in the lap of his badly wounded father. The power of that image may come to symbolize the bitterness of the battle for sovereignty over Jerusalem's holiest hill — because whether in Hebron or Gaza, the narrow streets of Jerusalem of even dusty Israeli-Arab towns such as Nazareth, the five days of clashes that have killed 34 Palestinians and three Israelis and left more than 700 people wounded are all about the fate of Jerusalem. Qualitatively, the clashes have been even more violent than the 1996 showdown over a tunnel opened by Israel on the Temple Mount — Israeli troops have fired on Palestinians with antitank rockets and helicopter gunships as Palestinian policemen and masked gunmen have fired back, cheered on by tens of thousands of unarmed demonstrators, while Arab youths inside Israel proper have taken to the streets in support of their Palestinian brethren and clashed violently with police.

The clashes began last Thursday with the arrival at the Al Aksa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, in a piece of political grandstanding designed to warn Prime Minister Ehud Barak off making any concessions on Jerusalem. The breadth and the intensity of the violence that has followed has been a resounding rejection on the Palestinian streets of U.S. and Israeli ideas on the future sovereignty over the Holy City. And the religious passion fueling that rejection — "jihad" (holy war) is the explanation most commonly cited by Palestinian demonstrators to explain their actions — will make it exceedingly difficult even for Arafat to bring them to a halt. Not that he'll be in any hurry to: The violence has graphically underlined his point that the Palestinians, too, have red lines on Jerusalem over which they can't be pushed, and has prompted the very Arab governments on whom Washington had been relying to help pressure Arafat into a deal on Jerusalem to circle their wagons around the Palestinian leader.

Trying to conclude a final agreement, right now, may be counterproductive for both Arafat and Barak. The beleaguered Israeli leader had been expected to struggle to maintain his majority when the Israeli parliament reconvenes, although the violence may paradoxically help him given the perception that Likud leader Sharon provoked the outburst. Even if he manages to shore up his base, making concessions under fire isn't the Israeli way. And Arafat must be well aware that the rage of his people is a sign that they perceive little gain from a decade of negotiations. That's a pot Hamas will gladly stir, with a religious militancy that knows no shades of gray and the promise of suicide bombers exacting revenge for five days of violence in which almost all of the blood shed has been Palestinian. Never mind Hamas; Arafat will have a hard enough time bringing his own Fatah party back on board. One of his cabinet ministers said Sunday that "we gave the peace process too much of a chance."

The White House, meanwhile, is pressing both sides to conclude a deal, presenting the violence as the consequence of their failure to do so. But the uncomfortable reality may be that the violence isn't simply a consequence of failure to reach a final agreement; it may in fact be a symptom of the very attempt to bring this most intractable of conflicts to a final conclusion.