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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2001

Jerusalem attacks benefit extremists on both sides

LONDON -- Hamas has had a very good weekend. The suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 25 people in Jerusalem and Haifa last Saturday and Sunday have driven any last remaining thoughts of a compromise peace settlement with the Palestinians out of the minds of most Israelis. Since the Islamic extremists of Hamas are dead set against such a peace, that is just what they wanted.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was not exactly searching for a pretext to reopen peace negotiations anyway, has also gained from the tragedy. He seized the opportunity to declare Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat an enemy with whom Israel could not longer do business. "Arafat is responsible for everything that happens," declared Sharon.

Does he really believe that? Certainly not, unless Israeli intelligence has suddenly gone stupid. But it clearly suits Sharon's purposes to head off potential American pressures for new peace talks by blaming everything on Arafat and declaring him an unacceptable negotiating partner.

Yet, since no Palestinian believes that Arafat is behind the attacks, Hamas collects full credit for them from its own community. In the eyes of the Arab "street," Hamas and its smaller rival, Islamic Jihad, are gradually eclipsing Arafat, whose total inability either to make peace with the Israelis or to protect his people from them has left Palestinians destitute, vulnerable and very bitter. (More Israelis died than Palestinians last weekend, but the longer-term average is still more than three Palestinians killed for every Israeli.)

At the same time, the Hamas attacks remind Americans of al-Qaeda's attacks in the United States in September: They both involve Muslim fundamentalists committing suicide to kill non-Muslims. Israeli government propagandists push this theme relentlessly, but it is equally useful to Hamas because it creates such a hostile and alien image of Palestinians among the American public that the Bush administration now finds it politically impossible to put pressure on the Israelis to make a deal.

Convoluted stuff, but not really contradictory. Both the Sharon government and Hamas are equally opposed to anything that would make a compromise "land-for-peace" settlement possible, so they are quite capable of using the same arguments and stratagems (from opposite ends, so to speak) in order to head off American pressures for such a deal. There was a serious risk of such pressure as the U.S. sought Arab and Muslim support for its war in Afghanistan, but now it has been pretty comprehensively defused.

Sharon and Hamas are, in the old Marxist phrase, "objective allies." Just as Hamas smoothed the path of rightwing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu to power in the 1995 election by conducting a bombing campaign that undermined the propeace platform of his opponents, so Hamas and Sharon share the goal of thwarting any development that makes a peace deal that more or less ratifies Israel's 1948 borders more likely. (Hamas doesn't want to recognize Israel within those borders; Sharon doesn't want to give up the settlements beyond them.)

What is remarkable, given the attitudes of Sharon and Hamas, is that neither is yet willing simply to get rid of Arafat. Israel could kill him at any time on half an hour's notice, but even Sharon is not ready to face the probable sequel: a Palestinian power struggle -- quite possibly a civil war -- that would probably be won by Hamas.

Israel could not then avoid reoccupying all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which would expose its troops to a far higher toll of casualties than now. Hamas would have to go back to being an entirely underground organization, with most of its leaders dead or jailed, and Palestine would lose what little territorial reality it now possesses. They would both rather leave Arafat hanging there for the moment, twisting slowly in the wind.

And this is a clue to their fundamental weakness: Neither of them can propose a feasible long-term solution for the Palestinian-Israeli dispute other than the compromise peace they both hate. Israel cannot destroy or wish away the millions of Palestinians, and the Palestinians cannot destroy Israel. The "moderates" always look weaker than the "extremists" in confrontations like this, but only the moderates have any proposals for escaping from perpetual killing.

There will be no early progress toward renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration's willingness to put pressure on the parties, never high, has sunk even lower as rapid U.S. military progress in Afghanistan takes the urgency out of Washington's need to placate Muslim public opinion. But Arafat has never actually refused a comprehensive land-for-peace deal offered by an Israeli government that had any prospect of surviving long enough to deliver on it (despite all the Israeli propaganda to the contrary). Eventually, the political wheel will turn full circle again in Israel.

Dr. David Goldberg, a senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John's Wood, London, recently summed the situation up rather well, though his comments caused a furor in Jewish circles in Britain. "I feel it is going to rain flesh and blood for a while, but then a Palestinian state will emerge. It will then be in Palestinian self-interest to live in peace with Israel, and to deal with their own extremists. I have no doubt that will happen."

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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