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    A Times Editorial

    Beyond the madness

    After the violence is brought to a halt in the Mideast, the movement toward an peace accord has to begin again.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2000

    Even by Mideast standards, Thursday was a horrifying day of violence. A deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. Navy ship in Yemen added American blood to the latest madness in the region. A Palestinian mob in Ramallah brutally murdered two Israeli soldiers who were in the custody of Palestinian police, threw one of the bodies from a window and dragged it through the streets. Israel retaliated by launching rocket attacks on Palestinian targets, including one near Yasser Arafat's residential compound.

    After Thursday's slaughter, the region seemed to be on a war footing, one incident away from even greater violence. The imperative now is not to salvage the peace process but to halt the killings. Arafat must take the first step. The Palestinian leader has failed to control his security forces and used the violence as political cover for rebuffing a historic Israeli offer for peace. Moderate Arab states, meanwhile, have largely stayed silent, fearing fundamentalist uprisings of their own, leaving the United States vulnerable politically and -- as shown Thursday -- militarily.

    Arafat's choice is simple: He can choose to be a partner in peace with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has made greater concessions that any future Israeli leader is likely to ever offer again, or he can be a partner in violence with Ariel Sharon, the right-wing Likud Party leader whose visit to a disputed holy site for Jews and Muslims ignited the latest outbreak of violence.

    In the past, spasms of bloody violence have been followed by renewed efforts to find peace. And that will have to happen after the latest violence subsides for the simple reason that the Israelis and the Palestinians have no alternative to peace. War and mob violence will settle nothing. They are stuck with each other as neighbors. Barak, a man of exceptional courage, seems to understand this, even if Arafat doesn't. "We will never lose hope for peace," Barak told CNN even after the mob murder of the two Israeli soldiers.

    Washington has a constructive role to play, even as it becomes increasingly difficult for the United States to operate as an honest broker. It would have helped had presidential candidates Al Gore and George Bush admonished Israel within the past two weeks for its disproportionate use of force in the same clear but measured way President Clinton blamed Arafat for his intransigence.

    Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has helped tremendously in recent days, worked late Friday to entice Barak and Arafat to a weekend summit; the United States would mediate, and Egypt and Jordan would attend, which would squeeze Arafat and help end at least the most coordinated Palestinian violence. Any breakthrough is a long shot. The alternative we've already seen.

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