Israelis and Palestinians Hurtle Down a Cul-de-Sac

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In moves mostly designed for domestic consumption, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat are burning the almost completely collapsed bridges that lead back to the peace process. Israeli helicopters launched new rocket attacks on Palestinian Authority buildings in the West Bank and Gaza overnight, making good on warnings by the Israeli defense minister that Israel plans to ratchet up its level of force in dealing with what he described as "guerrilla warfare" by the Palestinians. And Arafat responded that the raids could not "shake one eyelash from the eyelashes of a Palestinian child holding a Palestinian stone to defend holy Jerusalem." And as if the image of Israeli air raids and Palestinians urging children into battle wasn't sufficient evidence that the peace process isn't going anywhere soon, the killing of an Israeli security guard at a government building in East Jerusalem and the discovery of the body of an Israeli civilian in the nearby neighborhood of Gilo could easily develop into a tit-for-tat shooting war among civilians in and around the Holy City.

Escalating violence is a strategic cul-de-sac for both sides, but the political situation facing both Barak and Arafat may leave them little alternative. The Israeli leader bought himself a month's grace in the form of temporary support from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party when parliament reopened Monday, but he heads a minority government that may be unable to avoid the prospect of early elections now that the hawkish Likud party has vowed to topple Barak rather than join him in an emergency government. And few analysts are optimistic over Barak's chances of winning an election held during an intifada.

Meanwhile, Arafat finds himself in charge of a population that has no faith nor interest in a resumption of peace talks, and he faces the choice of either becoming the spokesman for their renewed intifada or else simply being sidelined. Still, neither side can achieve their political objectives through an escalation of violence — the Palestinians are militarily unable to muster the means to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; the Israelis are politically unable to deploy force on the scale necessary to crush an overwhelmingly popular uprising. So both sides will maintain the posture of escalation while knowing it won't get them beyond the impasse that sent them to the negotiating table in the first place. But it may take years before they once again confront that reality, and until then hundreds more Palestinian children — and scores more Israelis — may lose a lot more than their eyelashes.