There can be no excuse, no explanation, no reasoned or even plausible justification for the horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday that left four rabbis and an Israeli police officer dead. The assailants, two Palestinian militants armed with axes, meat cleavers and a gun who entered the building while the men were engaged in prayer had no other purpose than to kill or maim as many Jews as possible, and they went about their work with bloody efficiency. This was an act of pure nihilism and murderous hatred that deserves the world's unequivocal condemnation and scorn; anything less would represent a tacit acceptance of the moral evil at its core. To say there may have been a political motivation underlying Tuesday's slaughter is to evade the issue.
That said, the senseless attack took place in a toxic political context, and it is being exploited to ill ends. Tensions between Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem have been rising steadily since the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks between the governments of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this year. Things grew worse when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians in the West Bank last summer and Israel responded by targeting Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, touching off a seven-week war that left more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians dead. In recent weeks, conflict has centered around access to the ancient structure in Jerusalem known to Muslims as the al-Aqsa Mosque and to Jews as the Temple Mount, which both sides consider sacred.
But none of those disputes would have led to a renewal of the bloody violence seen on Tuesday had there not been powerful forces on both sides bent on escalating the conflict yet again. Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, hailed the attack on the synagogue as a blow against the Israel occupation, and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on the West Bank called its supporters into the streets to celebrate the perpetrators as heroes. Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to crack down on Palestinian militants by demolishing the family homes of their relatives, a move that is virtually certain to further inflame the situation.
At this point all signs indicate the two sides are hurtling toward a third intifada on the order of the Arab uprisings of 1987 and 2000, which together claimed more than 4,000 Palestinian and Israeli lives. Neither the Islamic militants' boasts of reconquering Palestinian lands nor Mr. Netanyahu's promise to secure Israel's right to exist by bulldozing Arab homes will calm the situation because what they both are seeking at bottom is retribution and revenge, not justice. If past experience is any guide, that's just a recipe for speeding up, not stopping, the region's descent into a chaos of neighbors slaughtering neighbors.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was visibly moved when he called on both sides to pull back from the brink and renew efforts toward reconciliation and peace. But while America must still play a role in trying to bring the two sides together, the old saw of Middle Eastern diplomacy rings true: We can't want peace more than they do.
At some point both Palestinians and Israelis have got to muster the courage to say enough to the fanatics in their camps: Enough to the senseless spilling of innocents' blood; enough to the hatred that prevents seeing the other as a person with the same hopes and dreams as oneself; enough to the madness and rage that drives otherwise ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts of savagery in the name of a religion or political ideology that divorces them from their sanity and their humanity.
The decades-long conflict in the Mideast has produced nothing but tragedy for Arabs and Jews, and it will continue to do so unless they learn to live together with mutual dignity and respect. We can only pray that Palestinians and Israelis will heed that lesson one day in order to finally make attacks like the one on Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem this week a thing of the past.