Israeli, US flags burned by students

 

AT A demonstration organised by students at the University of Bethlehem yesterday, not only was the Israeli flag set on fire, but the Stars and Stripes as well. America, the protest's leader declared through a megaphone, had acted intolerably in vetoing United Nations resolutions aimed at halting Israel's building programme for Jews in East Jerusalem.

The Bethlehem protest, accompanied by a new round of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops in Ramallah, hardly provided the most auspicious welcome for Mr Dennis Ross, the US peace talks mediator who is now beginning yet another emergency diplomatic mission.

After a week watching from the sidelines, in the vain hope that the Israelis and the Palestinians might resolve this latest breakdown by themselves, Mr Ross has been sent back to the Middle East by the new Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, to perform a task that could yet dwarf his four month negotiating marathon that led to January's Israeli partial pullout from Hebron.

The clashes this time have not yet descended into the pitched gun battles of last September. But the crisis of faith appears, if anything, even graver. The Israelis accuse Mr Yasser Arafat, in essence, of having returned to terrorism.

The Palestinians claim Mr Netanyahu has effectively junked the Oslo peace process by unilaterally approving construction in East Jerusalem.

Before Mr Ross can hope to bring Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu together, he must first satisfy the Israelis by extracting a new, public renunciation of terrorism from Mr Arafat, who Israel insists tacitly approved last Friday's Tel Aviv Hamas suicide bombing and who, they add, has still not come out against further such attacks. Mr Ross, who is to meet Mr Arafat today in Rabat, must get "a turnaround" from the Palestinian leader on "his giving terrorists a green light," said a Netanyahu aide.

Ideally, in return, the Palestinians would like Mr Ross to win a pledge from Mr Netanyahu for a halt to the Har Homah East Jerusalem building. Mr Ross, said the Palestinian peace negotiator, Mr Saeb Erekat, must "stand up and clearly tell the bulldozers to stop".

But both the Americans and the Palestinians acknowledge privately that Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to backtrack now.

Some aides to Mr Netanyahu have been privately suggesting that Mr Arafat is orchestrating the ongoing disturbances in the West Bank in the eventual hope of hanging down Mr Netanyahu altogether. The prime minister, however, was directly elected, and is extremely hard to unseat under Israel's reformed election laws.

What is possible, though, is that Mr Netanyahu might drop some of his far right coalition allies - especially those who threatened to bolt if he didn't approve the start of work at Har Homah - and instead build a "unity government" with the main, moderate opposition Labour Party. Labour's leader, Mr Shimon Peres, is desperate to join such a coalition, to save the Oslo framework he built. Others in the party, though, including its leader in waiting, Mr Ehud Barak, see their task as replacing Mr Netanyahu's government, not rescuing it.

David Horovitz is managing editor of the Jerusalem Report

AFP adds: The Arab League has backed an appeal by the Gulf Cooperation Council to reassess ties with Israel.

. Mr Arafat surprised his Sri Lankan host in Colombo, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, by pulling out a pistol at a state banquet in his honour, a newspaper reported. A Sri Lankan parliamentarian, Mr Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a former Tamil militia leader, had asked Mr Arafat jokingly: "Do you still carry a pistol as you did when you went to the UN?" On Mr Arafat's behalf, President Kumaratunga said: "He is now the president of Palestine. He need not carry a pistol." But a grinning Mr Arafat then drew his pistol from under his olive green fatigues, according to the Mid week Mirror.