Deaths in a Cause That Is Already Won

Article excerpt

The bloodshed is in vain. Israel has decided to settle with the Palestinians; the real enemies are the Orthodox absolutists within its borders.

Less than a fortnight ago, I walked across Temple Mount with Israel's official archaeologist. Tourists and Orthodox Jews mingled at the Western Wall. The sun was hot. The only Palestinians present were young men selling souvenirs -- postcards and trinkets depicting the Christian, Islamic and Jewish holy sites that pack the Old City. A squad of young Israeli soldiers carrying automatic weapons drew attention to the sensitivity that surrounds the place. They were relaxed enough to flirt with the tourists. Jerusalem was calm.

Then came Ariel Sharon's mindlessly provocative visit, rioting, dead children and new martyrs to the Palestinian cause. One act of vain arrogance, and months of progress have been undone. It is a painful reminder that Israel's most dangerous enemies are no longer beyond its borders.

Until the stones and bullets began to fly in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, peace was the main topic of conversation among liberal, secular Israelis. It seemed inevitable. The big worry was what it would mean. Could an Israel shorn of external threats heal its long-overlooked internal wounds? Could religious and secular, European and Middle Eastern, Hebrewand Russian-speaking Israelis learn to tolerate each other?

A final settlement is still coming in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Not this week, perhaps not this year, but it is coming. A sovereign Palestine will be declared, Jerusalem will be shared, refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars will not return to their homes and most Israeli settler communities will be protected by the bargaining of more land for peace.

Is this madly optimistic? The hurdles are numerous. Since the withdrawal of the ultra-orthodox Shas in July, Ehud Barak's government has been in a minority in the Knesset. Yasser Arafat is playing his favourite game of brinkmanship. The US presidential election provides an incentive for delay. The visceral issues of Jerusalem, refugees and settlers are not yet resolved. But the truth is that they will be. Israel has decided to settle. The principle of land for peace has been accepted. What is now required is the peace to compensate for territorial surrender.

In this context, the tragedy of the latest fighting takes on a new force. The 12-year-old Mohammad Jamal Aldura, caught in lethal crossfire at Netzarim junction on the Gaza strip, and dozens of other victims of this latest spasm of mutual hatred, did not die to advance a cause. The cause is accepted. Joint sovereignty over Jerusalem will be agreed -- either under UN or bilateral Israeli/Palestinian control.

That is how far the peace process has travelled. To far-off observers, the new conflict may seem indistinguishable from the intifada or the jeering crowds who flocked on to the streets of the West Bank to celebrate Saddam Hussein's Scud missile strikes during the Gulf war. However, we are witnessing the death throes of a dispute entering its terminal phase.

Israel's biggest problem is peace. A state struggling to absorb one million Russian immigrants, growing inequalities of wealth and health, and a looming confrontation between and theocracy is nervous about the consequences of final closure in the dispute that has obliged it to maintain internal unity. Liberal, Establishment, European Israel looks to the future with trepidation. It deserves understanding and support.

To understand, one need only visit the permanent encampment that has grown up around the prison in which the former Shas leader Aryeh Deri is serving his sentence for fraud. …