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Mideast Peace Efforts Compete With Spiraling Violence

WASHINGTON is concerned about the spiral of violence between and inside Palestinian and Israeli communities. John Kelly, the administration's top Mideast official, told a congressional panel last week that violence has been on the increase, and he sees no sign of a downturn in the 20-month-old Palestinian intifada (uprising).

None of those queried in or outside government think all violence can be stopped. Many expect the level of strife to get worse if a serious peace process gets under way, as radicals on both sides try to stop it. For example, Palestinians brave enough to begin talking, even with blessing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, will face real personal threats from disaffected Palestinians outside the PLO's control, US specialists say.

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Many here also say, not for attribution, that violence may be a necessary lever to get the two sides together. It raises the costs of the status quo, they say. ``The current violence may even be a sign of how successful we were in moving toward serious talks,'' says one insider.

But it is a dangerous and unstable lever, he adds. If the violence is not controlled by those with authority on both sides, it can easily make dialogue impossible.

In the longer term, says a senior US official, if there is no process under way to offer hope, there will be even more, less-controllable violence. ``We're constantly repeating the theme of how counterproductive violence is,'' he says, ``and asking both sides to take steps to deter it, and if it happens, to come down like a `ton of bricks' on those responsible ... whether they are called vigilantes or terrorists.''

One positive sign last week was the statement by PLO chief Yasser Arafat that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict are ``fed up'' with the violence. Mr. Arafat also labeled the recent bus crash caused by a lone Palestinian a ``tragedy'' and called for an end to the ``bloodshed'' on both sides. US officials had been hoping for such a statement as a way to keep the doors for dialogue open.

Israel also made a gesture toward local Palestinians and Washington by announcing last week the gradual reopening of elementary and secondary schools in the West Bank and Gaza. Washington had pressed for the move as a confidence-building measure. The schools had been closed because the Army said they were used to organize demonstrations. Many fear that could happen again, if local Palestinians don't take steps to inhibit it.

Most analysts here see a stalemate in the West Bank and Gaza. Martin Indyk, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, contends that the Israeli Army can control the uprising but can't put an end to it, while the Palestinians can make life uncomfortable for Israel but can't end the military occupation. The intifada is costing the Army about $200 million a year, Mr. Indyk says, in addition to the major human and indirect economic costs it has put on both communities.

Right now, he adds, there is sentiment among local Palestinian notables to explore the elections idea, but they face a radicalized street leadership that thinks it can gain more with rocks than talks. Those notables need a dialogue that can produce tangible results in lifting the burden of the military occupation, he argues, if they are to gain legitimacy on the streets and rein in the youth.

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Unless there is a process for the parties to focus on, US officials say, there is little to distract people in both communities from the violence and the rage it generates, and the relative moderates will be swamped once again.

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