This is a time for restraint, not for more, murderous mayhem. This is a time for leadership, not for submission to the blinding anger of the streets. Restraint and leadership were lacking in the immediate aftermath of Ariel Sharon's offensive visit to Haram al-Sharif. Palestinian civilians reacted with violent rage, the Israeli army with excessive force. Their political leaders, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, failing to take firm charge, opted instead to blame each other, the one rejecting a US-mediated ceasefire, the other ruling out an international inquiry into his government's actions.
Restraint and leadership are lacking now as Mr Barak threatens to wage war in the West Bank in defence of Jewish settlements and in Lebanon. The weekend clashes with Hizbullah, the renewed air raids and border bombardments, are an appalling backward step. Israel's Lebanon withdrawal last May, Mr Barak's only tangible achievement, is now in jeopardy. In turn, Mr Arafat, part ambivalent, part impotent in the face of his people's fury, undermines by his weakness the peace process to which he has pledged Palestine's future.
Exploiting the moment, hostile outsiders like Iraq and Iran tilt at US regional "hegemony" and call for a "holy war". For their own ends, they urge the Palestinians to throw their bodies upon Israel's bayonets in a vicarious conflict they themselves are too smart to fight. Throughout the Arab world, in Israel itself, and among Israel's Arab citizens, the mood hardens. It is, after all, so much easier to vent hatred and prejudice, to throw stones and fire bullets, than to seek compromise and conciliation. But this is what happens when leadership fails and restraint is cast aside.
Mr Barak claims that Israel's army has shown remarkable self-control in recent days. But his attempt to portray his country as victim will be rendered all the less credible should he take the offensive. He clearly wants to jolt the Palestinians into a cessation of violence. But his ultimatum, expiring tonight, is plainly self-defeating. Israel's prime minister should be in absolutely no doubt that a solemn declaration by him that the peace process is dead will sound the death knell of his own legitimacy. Mr Barak was elected last year on a peace platform. He has faced immense internal political difficulties. He was unlucky, in that the death of Syria's Hafez al-Assad paralysed negotiations with Damascus. To his credit, he went further than any Israeli leader before him in trying to cut a deal with Mr Arafat at Camp David last July. True to his word, he has fought for the "peace of the brave". But for him to abandon that struggle now would be to admit the bankruptcy of his whole policy.
If the peace process really is allowed to collapse, Mr Arafat, too, may have good cause to consider his position. Enjoying an iconic status, he has been the face of the Palestinian struggle for so long that it is difficult to imagine him gone. But what, in the event of a descent into an even greater chaos and yet more futile bloodshed in the West Bank and beyond, will he have left to offer? Many may feel, if that point is reached, that it is time for the standard to change hands.
For these reasons, as well as the intense interest of Bill Clinton in avoiding a Middle East implosion on the eve of the US election, the desperate attempts under way last night to head off an irreparable breach, possibly through an emergency summit tomorrow, may bear fruit. It is earnestly to be hoped that they do. If not, the events of the past 10 days will look like minor disturbances by comparison with what may swiftly follow.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000