Time is deadly enemy of promised Mideast peace

April 19, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HADERA, Israel -- Avner Gabay, 29, stood beside the hospital bed of his wounded mother and longed for a simple solution.

"It's painful because we're not going to retaliate," he said of the Palestinian bomb attack on a bus Wednesday that killed five Israelis and sent fragments into his mother's back. "We have got to do something to show strength, to show that we're not going to bend."

On a dusty side street in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, Zuhair Odeh, 26, also despaired of solutions. He sat under the traditional canopy erected for the wake of his brother, one of six Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers in what they later admitted was a mistake.

"I supported the peace process. Not anymore," said Mr. Odeh. "They kill my brother. They kill my people. The reaction of our people should be strong and tough."

It has been a bruising few weeks for the peace process between Jews and Arabs here.

Palestinians, still seething over the massacre of 30 Muslim worshipers by a Jewish settler, saw more of their own killed in clashes with both soldiers and settlers. They watched the Israeli army demolish Palestinian houses and saw harsh new restrictions imposed to keep them from jobs, schools, hospitals.

Israelis, frustrated at the continued terrorist attacks, saw their tougher measures answered by a new and ominous escalation of the violence. Suicide bomb attacks by Palestinians on public buses mangled victims at two working-class towns in Israel. Yesterday a Palestinian attacked bus passengers in Jerusalem with an ax, wounding two before he was subdued.

Support for peaceful negotiations has dropped on both sides. A poll in Israel last week showed that 58 percent of Israelis who responded gave the government a failing grade. For the first time, a straw poll pitting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin against the stridently anti-peace opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, showed that Mr. Rabin would lose an election now.

On the Palestinian side, no survey is necessary to gauge the sullen, angry mood. Yasser Arafat, still prodding his Fatah mainstream group in the Palestine Liberation Organization to keep talking with Israel, is viewed dismissively on the streets of Gaza and Hebron.

Some angry young men of the Fatah Hawks are rejecting his orders to keep peace; he has closed all the Fatah offices in an attempt to regain control.

The violence is intended by its architects -- the Baruch Goldsteins who open fire in a Hebron mosque, the Amar Amarnas who smuggle a pipe bomb onto a crowded Hadera bus -- to end the peace process. In their mutual hatred, radicals on both sides have found a unity of purpose.

But the march of funerals has served only to further steady the course of the principals in the peace search. Mr. Arafat's wavering after the Hebron massacre has ended. He returned to the peace talks. And after the second bus bombing, he did not hesitate to offer regrets.

His not condemning the first bus bomb in Afula on April 6 provoked angry recriminations in Israel. This time, he called Mr. Rabin personally with condolences, an act not likely to be popular among Palestinians suspicious that he already is being too weak in dealing with Israel.

Mr. Rabin, too, is undeterred. A taciturn man who does not relish public functions, he nevertheless has embarked on a blitz of speeches and interviews to defend his policies.

"I know I have to contend with a drop in support among the Israeli public," he said. "I will not judge my policy according to public opinion polls. I did not come to this chair for the sake of merely sitting in it."

Sometimes combative, at other times Mr. Rabin has seemed to bare his private doubts.

"It is already late at night, past midnight, what should I write?" he began the traditional letter to families of fallen soldiers on Israel's Memorial Day Wednesday.

"I have always written to you about peace and about the great hope to put an end to wars. . . . From my standpoint, this was not bTC lip service. Perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps not. Will peace be [the] reward? Perhaps."

Last week was not supposed to find this land in such a grim pose. Seven months ago, there were olive branches and celebrations in the streets. Television pictures from Washington flickered with the handshake of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin agreeing to end this conflict.

According to their agreement, Wednesday was to be the end of Israeli troop withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip and the start of redeployment from the rest of the West Bank.

Negotiations bogged down over details. The troop withdrawal has not even officially started. The violence has added further delays -- most notably a five-week freeze in talks after the Hebron massacre. The negotiations seemed unhastened even as public support drained away.

In their private wrangling, both sides have gone back on public vows, adding to the complications and delay.

Mr. Rabin often proclaimed that he wanted nothing to do with running Palestinian affairs. But his representatives have haggled over the most minute details of autonomy, from the design of the uniforms of Palestinian police to the color of the glass at control booths.

Mr. Arafat, who agreed to postpone for five years the Palestinian demands for statehood, nevertheless has pushed for all the trappings: a Palestinian passport, coins and border officers.

After a five-day recess, the negotiators returned to Cairo Sunday. The latest rounds of violence have produced now-routine promises that the talks will be done soon. The only question is whether it will be soon enough.

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