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    With Israel on edge, John Kerry must help cool tensions

    Secretary of State John Kerry.
    AP
    Secretary of State John Kerry.

    SUNDAY’S TERRORIST attack at the Beersheba bus station illustrates just how dangerous a turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has taken. An Arab Israeli killed a soldier, stole his weapon, and shot into a crowd. In the confused aftermath, civilians shot and beat an Eritrean man to death, mistaking him for an Arab attacker. The tragedy illustrates the climate of fear and hysteria that has gripped Israel in recent weeks, amid a spate of near-daily knife attacks by Palestinians on Jewish civilians.

    Although not nearly as deadly as the bus bombings of the second Intifada, these “lone wolf” knife attacks have the potential to tear at the fabric of society in a deeper way. The fact that so many of the attackers are ordinary Palestinian teens rather than trained terrorist operatives — and that some are Israeli citizens — has sown fear of the enemy within. Tit-for-tat “nationalist” violence against Palestinians — or people perceived to be Palestinians — appears to be on the rise. In the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Ata, a Jewish Israeli stabbed a laborer at a mall with a box cutter — only to discover after his arrest that his victim was a Jew, not an Arab. It’s a challenge for any democracy to preserve the rule of law in the wake of terrorism. But failing to do so lets terror win.

    Restoring a sense of security and calm must be the top priority when Secretary of State John Kerry travels to the region this week. No one expects him to try to revive the moribund peace process. Little has changed since talks collapsed in April of 2014. There’s no reason to think renewed talks would have any greater chance of success.

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    But Kerry should insist that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and all Palestinian Authority officials refrain from fanning the flames of these attacks. He should also urge Israeli security forces to arrest and try those who set fire to a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing a toddler and his parents.

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    Lastly, Kerry should help clarify that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are committed to maintaining the status quo at al-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Temple Mount, which is widely seen as a trigger of the recent violence. Palestinians fear that Israel has plans to demolish the mosque — the third holiest site in Islam — and rebuild the Jewish temple in its place on the spot where the first and second Jewish temples once stood. Recent visits by Jewish activists who want to regain control over the site, including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, set off deadly confrontations between Palestinians and police.

    To his credit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently banned cabinet ministers from visiting the compound, in a bid to quell the violence. He also announced that there will be no change to the status quo. But Palestinians don’t believe him. A statement by Jordan’s King Abdullah, publicly acknowledging Netanyahu’s pledge to keep the status quo, could potentially help curb the attacks.

    But even after the current violence dies down, the growing sense of hopelessness among Palestinian youth will continue to threaten Israel’s future. That’s why it was so important that, even amid the violence, hundreds of Jews and Arabs rallied for “peaceful coexistence” in Jerusalem. Preserving that ideal has never been more difficult, or more important.