There cannot be a justifiable reason, an acceptable excuse or mitigating circumstances for the escalating terrorist attacks on Palestinian and Israeli civilians that are now so clearly aimed at sabotaging peace talks between the two parties. All such atrocities deserve--demand--universal condemnation, wherever they occur and by whomever they are carried out.
An attack that coldbloodedly aims at killing and maiming schoolchildren is of an especially despicable order. The car bomb that was exploded next to a bus picking up students in the Israeli town of Afula this week, a manly deed for which the Islamic militant group Hamas heaps praise on itself, was simply and horribly an act of vicious moral cowardice. And the failure of Yasser Arafat to condemn it immediately and unqualifiedly was a shameful display of political gutlessness.
The silence of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization--which for 20 years has insisted that it is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian cause--is all the more striking in light of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's harsh condemnation of the attack last month on Palestinian worshipers in the Hebron mosque, and the public inquiry Israel has been conducting into that crime. Why has Arafat had nothing to say, leaving it to his underlings to issue a weak and belated expression of "regrets"? Clearly it's because he fears offending Palestinian radicals more than he worries about giving offense to Israel or to the United States, whose President has publicly urged him to speak out. Arafat's silence is not a sign of his independence. Rather it's an admission of his increasingly shaky position among Palestinians and his lack of control.
The peace process, to the frustration of both its Palestinian and Israeli enemies, will survive this week's attacks in Afula and Ashdod just as it survived the Hebron mosque massacre. The radicals and the crazies will, of course, keep trying to sabotage it with new acts of terrorism. For now--certainly in Israel and almost certainly among the Palestinians--the opponents of peace remain a distinct minority. But atrocities have a cumulative effect, with each adding to the numbers of those who are inclined to doubt that the two peoples can ever coexist in relative peace. The best answer to that skepticism is to keep the peace talks moving, no matter what the provocations by militants and lunatics.
The Israeli government deserves considerable credit for staying the course, under these most trying circumstances. For his part, Arafat says he's as committed to that process as Rabin. Some appropriate condemnation of this week's acts of Palestinian terrorism would have done much to underscore that commitment.