Events have gone far beyond the type of minor incident it is possible to overlook. Palestinian civilians attacked Israeli settlements and army positions throughout the territories yesterday with both rocks and live fire. Worst of all, the Palestinian Police, rather than trying to calm the situation, were frequently in the forefront of the attacking Palestinians. The result has been a mounting toll of both Israeli and Palestinian dead.
Furthermore, though Arafat promised to try to calm the situation, senior Palestinian Authority officials openly admit that it was Arafat who encouraged the rioting in the first place. After a meeting Wednesday morning of the PLO Executive Committee and the PA cabinet, Finance Minister Mohammed Nashashibi told reporters that Arafat and the cabinet had given the go-ahead for "escalation by all means" in the territories. This, like the involvement of the Palestinian Police, is not something Israel can let pass. Prior to the elections, Netanyahu repeatedly said the proper response to such behavior was to call a complete halt to the talks. If Israel agrees to negotiate under gunfire, he said, the lesson the Palestinians will learn is that violence does pay.
Netanyahu was right then, and this theory still holds true today. This is especially so because the opening of an exit to the Hasmonean Tunnel is an issue of virtually unparalleled triviality. Since the tunnel has been open for years already, it changes the balance of power in Jerusalem not at all. Furthermore, it is something to which the Palestinians agreed, in exchange for the right to pray in Solomon's Stables -- a bargain, incidentally, which Israel has kept faithfully, to the point of defending the Wakf's illegal building in Solomon's Stables to the High Court of Justice earlier this week.
If Arafat is prepared to set the territories on fire over this, one can only imagine the bloodshed that would ensue if Israel refused the PA something major, such as eastern Jerusalem -- unless he is convinced now that violence will merely harden Israel's position, and is herefore unproductive. From this perspective, Netanyahu's initial assurance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday morning, that the steering committee on Hebron will meet as soon as possible, was a mistake, and it is to be hoped that the prime minister will reconsider this. The government's position must be that there will be no movement whatsoever on the negotiations while Israelis are being killed. The suggestion that the IDF withdraw now from Joseph's Tomb in response to the violence, however, is worse than a mistake: It would be the clearest possible proof that violence does pay. It is therefore to be hoped that the cabinet will reject it.
The widespread international expressions of "understanding" for the Palestinians' behavior are also, to put it charitably, counterproductive. That the Arab world has expressed unqualified support for the rioting is hardly surprising. But the West's failure to unequivocally condemn this behavior is incomprehensible. It is one thing for the West to express its disapproval of the opening of the tunnel exit, but quite another to imply, even by omission, that this justifies days of rioting leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Due to the PA's desperate need for Western financial assistance, the disapproval of the US and Europe would be a powerful incentive for the PA to restrain the violence. Instead, the industrialized world has given the violence its tacit approval -- which can only encourage the PA to continue using this tactic.
Even more distressing is the irresponsible behavior of the Israeli opposition. Labor, as the father of the Oslo Accords, should have been the first to decry such widespread Palestinian violence. A peace agreement capable of dissolving into violence at such a petty provocation is clearly not worth the paper it is printed on; only if Arafat can be convinced that this behavior is unacceptable do the agreements have a chance of succeeding. Instead of making this clear to Arafat, however, Labor leader Shimon Peres and most Labor MKs have cynically decided to reap political capital out of the rioting by saying the violence is not the Palestinians' fault but the Likud's. Not only is this absurd on the face of it -- it is not the Likud which began storming settlements with rocks and guns yesterday morning -- but it simply encourages the violence by increasing Arafat's hopes that it will achieve his goals.
It is, of course, possible that Arafat is no longer able to control what he started, though this seems less likely. As Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said, the attacks were so widespread and well-timed that they were "certainly not spontaneous, but initiated." But if Arafat is indeed unable to stop the rioting, this raises even more questions about the value of the peace process. The theory behind the Oslo Accords was that if Arafat were given enough money and a strong enough police force, he would be able to control his people and protect Israeli lives. If instead he is using this power to set the territories on fire, that is an excellent reason not to give him even more power -- which is something both the government and the world must make him understand If, however, he is simply unable to control the 40,000-strong army Israel has provided him with, that is an equally good reason for Israel to call for a time-out. Hizbullah has given Israel ample experience of the havoc that can be wreaked by a powerful militia which answers to no government. The events of the past two days show that the PA Police are more than capable of creating equal havoc if left unchecked.(c) Jerusalem Post 1996