Middle East peace process on the brink

Prospects for peace in the Middle East were severely undermined last month, when a bomb ripped through a crowded Tel Aviv cafe killing three Israeli women and the young Palestinian man responsible for the blast. More than 50 others were wounded in the first suicide bombing since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office last year. Netanyahu’s campaign pledge to prioritize security in pursuing peace brought about his victory. But his reaction to the bombing not only threatened to curtail the peace process altogether, it also tempted more terrorist activity in the region.
Investigators have yet to determine who is responsible for ordering the bombing. An anonymous caller claimed the detonation was the work of the Islamic movement Hamas, but the organization has not issued its trademark statement taking responsibility. For weeks, though, Netanyahu’s government has charged Yasser Arafat with deliberately sanctioning the terror in opposition to Israel’s plan to build a Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu insists that Arafat’s recent decision to release a number of jailed Palestinian militants who were involved in a spate of suicide bombings last year granted a “green light” to terrorists who might actively object to Israel’s project.
Arafat has denied the allegations and condemned the bombing. And unlike King Hussein of Jordan, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Arafat has not publicly accused Israel of inciting the violence. Although Arafat opposed the housing project from the start, he tried to prevent Palestinian protests from turning violent. In return, he expected to play a consultative role in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. Arafat also hoped the project would not pre-empt planned Arab-Israeli negotiations regarding the possibility of a Palestinian state. But Netanyahu excluded the Palestinian Authority from the withdrawal operations, and refused to commit to future discussions regarding statehood.
A week before the bombing, it was not Arafat but Hussein who wrote an angry letter to Netanyahu warning him that the housing project would outrage the Palestinians and invite a violent response from extremists such as Hamas. President Mubarak issued a similar statement, cautioning Netanyahu against disrupting the peace process. But despite widespread opposition from its allies in Jordan, Egypt and the United States, Israel began construction on the project just days before the Tel Aviv incident.
The Arab-Israeli peace process is on the brink of destruction. Violence is escalating in the wake of last month’s bombing. But despite the ongoing strife, both Netanyahu and Arafat must move their governments toward recovering a shared commitment to ending the persistent violence. For now, Israel and the Arab nations have to stop pointing fingers at each other before the damage wrought by the political fallout of the Tel Aviv bombing becomes irreparable. Ultimately, an end to the violence will only be possible if Netanyahu and Arafat agree to communicate with one another on a continuous basis. Given their apparent unwillingness to negotiate on their own, the United States will likely have to once again step in to more actively mediate the peace process.