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With Violence in Israel Rising, Both Sides Face Hard Choices

By Glenn Frankel
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

With a sudden burst of bloodshed, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has reverted to the time-honored pattern of provocation and response, kill and be killed. But this time there is a crucial difference: Palestinians have a paramilitary police force and automatic weapons, and Israelis are taking heavier losses than in the past.

The confrontation leaves Israel's new and untested leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a stark choice. He can seek to satisfy his right-wing base and permanently shatter the terms of the Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization by sending Israeli troops back to the cities and populated zones of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to restore order. Or he can try to move to the political center by seeking to reestablish the partnership with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that was the centerpiece of the accord between the two longstanding enemies.

By contrast, Yasser Arafat, who called for the demonstrations that led to the violence, so far appears to be the beneficiary. The turmoil has put the Palestinian cause back on the world's television screens, increased his stature both at home and in the Arab world at large, and forced the Clinton administration to focus on the region in the midst of an election campaign. But there are indications the violence has intensified to the point where Arafat cannot keep it under control.

"While the confrontation is good for him because it teaches the Israelis that freezing the peace process is not cost-free, it can also escalate and get totally out of his control, as happened today," said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in the West Bank city of Nablus.

The collapse of relations between Netanyahu and Arafat during the Israeli leader's first 100 days in office is the context that in large part explains why Israel's decision to dig through 20 inches of dirt and open a new door to an existing tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem has triggered such an explosion of rage among Palestinians.

Netanyahu defeated the architect of the Oslo accord, Shimon Peres, in last May's election by promising a "secure peace" that would honor the accord while emphasizing Israel's security needs. For more than three months Netanyahu repeatedly has scorned and humiliated Arafat, treating him like a vanquished but recalcitrant enemy rather than a peace partner.

Netanyahu's right-of-center government has been confrontational in its rhetoric, resistant to carry out Israel's commitment to withdraw troops partially from the West Bank city of Hebron and critical of Arafat's alleged failure to honor parts of the accord.

Yet the new government has been reluctant to resume discussions on a range of issues that divide the two sides. These slights have weakened Arafat's stature among Palestinians.

Jerusalem is sacred ground to both sides, and any move there traditionally has provoked unrest. By sanctioning this week's show of strength in the Old City, Netanyahu in effect gave Arafat the weapon he needed to reassert his own authority.

"He's given Arafat a golden opportunity on a silver platter," said Yosef Alpher, a strategic analyst who directs the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. "This kind of move hits at the primeval fears of Muslims everywhere. It gives Arafat the perfect cause to rally his forces."

Ironically, the one sphere in which cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians had continued despite the change in government was the military. The Israeli army and Palestinian police had established cooperation and trust through continual meetings, joint patrols and the sharing of intelligence.

Now that, too, is shattered. The decision by Palestinian forces to open fire on Israeli soldiers - responding in part to the army's use of live ammunition against Palestinian civilians - is the critical new element that makes this new confrontation the most dangerous and volatile yet.

"Both sides have been trying to redefine the rules of the game," said former ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, a member of the opposition Labor party. "Now we are at a stage of mutual inflicting of pain and damage."

For Israelis, the clashes have the depressingly familiar ring of the old intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 1987 to 1993 that led to the Oslo accord and the end of Israel's military occupation of most of the West Bank and Gaza.