The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November is a tragic reminder of the role that religiously based fanaticism has played in shaping Israeli policy toward the peace process.
For two years now, Israel's fundamentalists and their threats of violence have seriously constrained the ability of the Israeli government to meet several Palestinian concerns in the process. Efforts to shut down all Palestinian activity in East Jerusalem, continued settlement building on Palestinian-owned land, maintaining provocative settler communities in Gaza and Hebron, and regular episodes of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank have all combined to distort the process, deny Palestinian aspirations, and delay implementation of the peace accords.
Now Rabin, who was so often frustrated by those groups and who frequently denounced them, has lost his life to one of their disciples, and many question whether or not the process will survive his passing.
Even before the Rabin assassination, there were many concerns about the status quo of the peace process. Despite these concerns, some observers feel the murder of Rabin "cannot and will not stop the process" because there are forces on both sides driving it forward. The peace process, in this view, has become both institutionalized and irreversible.
One thing is certain. Israeli society and the American Jewish community have been traumatized by the assassination. U.S. officials have been shocked, as well, by their recognition of the real threat posed by Jewish fundamentalism and violence.
Recent polls show that Israelis have responded to the murder of Rabin by becoming even more strongly committed to carrying out Israel's withdrawal from the territories, cracking down on violent right-wing factions, and even supporting Prime Minister Shimon Peres over Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
It remains to be seen whether or not these hopeful attitudes will be sustained and whether or not the terms of Israeli-Palestinian agreements and timetables will be adhered to. But what is clear is that the ugly murder of Rabin has shaken up attitudes in Israel and forced the issue of peace to be more directly debated and addressed than ever before.
There remain significant obstacles to the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace. It is clear that if the process does not move forward with all deliberate haste and with greater justice and respect for Palestinians and their rights, the vision of regional peace could well collapse because its foundation-the Israeli-Palestinian track-is not yet firmly established.
THIS IS THE ISSUE that Israelis will now have to confront directly. For the promise of peace and regional economic cooperation to become a reality, Israel must counter the threat posed by right-wing fanaticism and move forward in acting concretely to recognize Palestinian rights.
But it is equally important to insist without condition or reservation that terrorist acts of violence by Palestinian extremists also end. These acts do nothing to alleviate Palestinian hardships, nor do they allay Palestinian rage. Their purpose is political and not in response to Palestinian suffering. Rather, they prey off of the Palestinian dilemma and serve to create conditions that compound the dilemma. They must, therefore, be unequivocally condemned-and those who order and organize them must also be condemned. There can be no defense for those who persist in taking life in this way.
Palestinians and Israelis are locked in a peace-security conundrum. In this situation, Israelis will not be able to enjoy greater peace and security until Palestinians have achieved more control over their own lives and land, and Palestinians will not fully realize peace and justice until Israelis feel a greater sense of security. Extremist appeals on both sides clearly understand this bind and have, therefore, exploited it with their tactics.
Israeli settlers and Likudniks seize new land and pressure their government not to grant greater sovereignty or rights to Palestinians. Palestinian extremists likewise know that suicide bombings timed in the midst of negotiations will increase pressure to abort the process or at least serve to make the negotiations more difficult.
Given the asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians, it is fair for Arabs to demand that greater responsibility be shouldered by Israel, the party with the greater power. But given what we know of the goals and methods of the Palestinian extremists, it is important that Arabs, too, act to condemn and isolate those bent on destroying the possibility of peace. For the process to move forward, supporters of a just and lasting peace must be as determined and vigorous in the defense of peace as the extremists are in their opposition. -James Zogby
JAMES ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.