Sunday 23 October 2016, 21 Tishrei 5777


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Death and diplomacy

The onus is now on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Premier Mahmoud Abbas to prove that the bold words of peace spoken at last week’s Red Sea summit in Aqaba were no desert mirage.

In the space of seven days, the heady atmosphere of summitry has evaporated, replaced by the all-too-familiar sights and sounds of terror and death on the streets of Jerusalem and Gaza. It would be wrong to explain away Wednesday’s savage bus-bombing simply as a revenge attack for Israel’s assassination attempt on Hamas’s Abdelaziz Rantisi. Hamas has never needed an excuse to seek to bomb and batter the peace process. Moreover, as Mr Rantisi again made clear in comments after the attack, he and his cohorts have no real interest in the two-state, land-for-peace deal envisaged under the road map. They want an end not just to Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, but within the state’s pre-1967 Six-Day Way borders too. At the same time, however, there must be a question-mark hanging over the wisdom of Israel’s decision to target the Hamas figure at this time. That Mr Rantisi is, at the very least, an active supporter of terror and a danger to Israel, is beyond doubt. But whether, to borrow the terminology of Israeli political and security planners, he is “a ticking bomb,” meriting the implementation of a kill-on-sight order, is another issue. More importantly, the failed attack was not just a political embarrassment for Mr Sharon. It also risked damaging Israel’s most vital diplomatic asset: the trust and empathy of American President George W. Bush. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, Mr Sharon has made winning and securing President Bush’s support for Israel’s core positions a top priority. In one decision — albeit a response to Sunday’s attack on an Israeli army base at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza — he let his heart overrule his head, and the end-result was predictable.

What is not predictable is what happens next. There are those who will, understandably, see the events of the past few days as proof of the impossibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But it has to be in both Israel’s and the Palestinians’ longer-term interest for this not to be the case. The road map, however tattered and torn it may already be, is at present the only way out of the violence and despair of the past week. For it to take hold, Mr Abbas must match his public rejection of violence with action, by cracking down on Palestinian terror groups — including members of his own Fatah organisation. There is no point in Israel’s ceding control of West Bank or Gaza territory if these areas are simply going to turn into staging-posts for renewed attacks on Israelis. Mr Sharon must reinforce his reiterated commitment to work to “advance the diplomatic process” by going ahead with his initial responsibilities under the road map, notably the dismantling of the unauthorised settlements that have sprung up over the course of his premiership. Mr Bush, for his part, must recognise that only sustained personal involvement in the peacemaking process can provide any hope of progress. The tragic events of the past week cannot be forgotten; but they should not be allowed to wipe out the gains of Aqaba, where both Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas pledged to seek a path to shared peace and security. They, and Mr Bush, must know that if they fail to pick up the pieces quickly, the future looks bleak indeed.

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