In Paris, It's Another Mideast Square One

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It was in an "old house in Paris covered with vines" that the storybook Madeline kept the peace — but she didn't have to contend with two peoples who'd been at each other's throats for a half-century. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright managed to coax Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into the same room for crisis talks in Paris on Wednesday, after Arafat had initially demanded an international inquiry into the recent wave of violence as his price. But back home, the killings continued, with fierce battles raging in Gaza and the West Bank claiming at least two more lives — and putting the prospects for restoring the peace process that much further in doubt.

The latest violence, which has claimed almost 70 lives — mostly Palestinian — began last Thursday, when controversial Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon led a large security detachment into the compound housing the Al Aksa mosque, Islam's third holiest site and the emotional epicenter of Palestinian sovereignty claims on Jerusalem. Sharon's move was a challenge to Barak's efforts to find a compromise with Arafat on the Holy City, and it set off a firestorm of Palestinian protest. After initial clashes atop the Temple Mount, every Israeli outpost in Arafat's territory became a lightning rod of rage for Palestinians, with stone-throwing youths occasionally backed by lone gunmen and even Palestinian policemen, while the Israeli response piled up victims whose funerals sparked new confrontations. When a cease-fire collapsed within hours of being concluded on Monday, it was a sign that the violence may have spiraled beyond the control of the responsible leadership on both sides.

Even if the violence has amplified Arafat's argument that his people's fierce religious passions preclude him from compromising on his demand for sovereignty over Jerusalem's Islamic holy sites, he ultimately shares Barak's interest in restoring calm. After all, the violence shifts the center of gravity in Palestinian politics toward Hamas and other hard-line factions that are now openly challenging not only the peace process but Arafat's right to lead. Already, whatever wiggle room the Palestinian leader may have had to find compromise on Jerusalem may have been narrowed, with the entire Arab world — including such traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt — lashing out at Israel and reaffirming demands for Palestinian sovereignty. Barak, meanwhile, remains imperiled by the possibility of losing his parliamentary majority at any time, with the alienation of Israeli-Arab voters after the killing of at least nine Israeli-Arab protesters diminishing his prospects of being reelected.

After almost a week of bloodletting, both Barak and Arafat have even less room for maneuvering than they did at Camp David, which means it could be a year or more before prospects for a breakthrough reemerge. Until then, both leaders, assisted by whoever's in charge in Washington, may have to work to maintain something less than peace — the absence of war.