SUDDENLY Palestinians on the Temple Mount were stoning Israelis at holiday prayer at the Western Wall and the Israeli police guarding them. It produced the worst violence in East Jerusalem since it was taken by Israel in 1967: 19 killed on the Palestinian side, many others shot or stoned on both sides. Palestinians were apparently stirred by reports that ultranationalist Jews were planning a symbolic takeover of the Mount, where two mosques holy to Islam are situated. Such is the tension that pervades Jerusalem that it did not matter that an Israeli court had barred the march.
President Bush rapped Israel for not being better prepared to apply force with restraint. The Palestinian death toll was shocking. One wonders, however, how a police detachment of 40 is supposed to contain an enraged instant mob of 3,000 hurling stones at them and nearby citizens within a closely confined space.
In fact the main issue behind this awful explosion is the same one that has eluded resolution for years: the political relationship of Israelis and Palestinians. The Bush administration had been working that issue -- by trying to open Israeli-Palestinian talks on Israeli Prime Minister Shamir's proposal for West Bank autonomy. The readier the Palestinians got to enter those talks, the more Mr. Shamir backed off his own proposal. This situation was obscured by the Gulf crisis. It evoked a wave of emotion for Saddam Hussein even from those Palestinians who previously favored peace with Israel, and silenced most of Israel's doves. It let Jerusalem argue plausibly that the Palestinian question should be set aside for the duration. Spying a propaganda opening, President Hussein proposed a tight linkage of new Kuwait "arrangements" to a prior Palestinian settlement. President Bush countered with a loose linkage: Iraqi withdrawal first.
The Temple Mount explosion is bound to galvanize Arab and other support for an urgent approach to the Palestine question. But central as that question is to regional stability, this is the wrong time to tackle it head on. By their embrace of a dictator who threatens Israel (again yesterday) with death and destruction, Palestinians have forfeited for the time being the chance of finding partners for peace in Israel. Taking up the question would only help Saddam Hussein break out of his isolation on Kuwait.
Iraq's and Israel's occupations are different. Iraq acquired Kuwait by aggression; it should give it back. Israel acquired East Jerusalem and the West Bank in response to Jordan's aggression; it should negotiate peace -- with the Palestinians and with the Arab world beyond. But first the Gulf crisis must be played out.