We all saw the newspaper photos, and some of us caught it live on television: a father desperately calling out The child! The child! and the terrified 12-year-old Muhammed al-Durrah dying on the spot. That is not the only thing that has died in Gaza and Nablus and Jerusalem. It is hard to believe that Ariel Sharon, the leader of Israel’s Likud party, did not know precisely what he was doing when he entered Jerusalem’s Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, on Sept. 28. But it is even harder to understand why the Israeli government gave Mr. Sharon permission to make his heavily armed tour, for the man is abominated by Arabs for his role in the 1982 slaughter of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. His overbearing tread upon what Muslims consider the second holiest site in the world, next to the Qaaba in Mecca, could only be taken as an act of sacrilege. To be sure, Mr. Sharon was there to upstage his rival Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of their right-wing party. But as the sequel has shown, the walk-about was a very deliberate effort to undermine the fragile peace process that Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been conductingby giving the contemptuous back of the hand to any Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
In the stormy history of Israeli-Arab relations since 1948, not many Israelis have been as callous toward Muslim sensitivities as Ariel Sharon. When the Israeli army took over the Old City in the Six-Day war of 1967, Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, feared that Israeli triumphalism would ignite a religious war with the whole Islamic world. He therefore ordered that the Israeli flag be removed from the Dome of the Rock and that Muslim authority be put in charge. So it has remained ever since. The irony is that Mr. Sharon’s presence on the site of the ancient Jewish temples also violated the Orthodox rule, honored since Rabbi Maimonides in the 12th century, that no Jew should walk through the entire Temple Mount, lest he unwittingly transgress on the Holy of Holies. At the very least, Mr. Sharon trampled on the peace.
Most American observers, it is now clear, had badly underestimated the depth of popular Palestinian frustration and rage. Since the Oslo accords in 1994, Palestinians have had to stomach an influx of 50,000 Jewish settlers, the paving of 400 kilometers of roads on confiscated land, the demolition of over 800 of their homes, a threefold increase in unemployment in the territories, the arrest of 13,000 compatriots and the continued curtailment of freedom of movement. To many, especially the young, the truncated Palestinian state that Yasir Arafat has seemed willing to acceptencircled by Israeli settlements, crisscrossed by bypass roads, subject to restrictions on movement and lacking real control over either commerce or natural resourcesamounts to a kind of apartheid. Until these wrongs are addressed, there will be no peace.
From the outset Ehud Barak has had little space to manoeuvre. Elected with 56 percent of the popular vote but with only 26 seats in the Knesset, he was driven to form a coalition of right-wing religious parties that have now abandoned him. What is surprising, perhaps, is how close he came to fulfilling his most challenging campaign promiseto leave no stone unturned in making peace with Syria and the Palestinians. A treaty with Syria’s late President Assad came within inches of being a done deal; and now, even with Jerusalem at last on the table, the tragedy is that in the practical order the issues are not intractable at all. Can Jerusalem be the capital of a new Palestinian state? The Palestinians have already built a parliament building in Abu-Dis, a village bordering on East Jerusalem. And de facto Israelis and Palestinians currently divide up the administration of Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem, including the arrangement that gives the Israelis technical sovereignty over the Temple Mount while the Palestinian Authority continues to administer the holy sites there with (until recently) minimal interference from the Israeli government. It is also all but agreed that the Israelis will accept, as an act of atonement, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, provided the numbers are kept within reason.
President Clinton has come under pressure to put aside his honest broker role and take sides in this conflict. That would be a mistake. There are already too many people on one side or the other. Instead the United States should make clear that its goal is peace for all sides. But while the United States should continue to urge moderation on the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, it must also make clear that the use of lethal force against rock-throwing teenagers is unacceptable. When the death ratio exceeds 20 Palestinians for every Israeli, even a return to the talionic law of an eye for an eye would be a step forward. If this violence continues, the United States should reconsider its military aid program to Israel.