Facing escalation in the Middle East

Powell's rebuke: Calling Israel's reprisal wrong is not saying what would be right.

April 19, 2001

IT IS EASY to agree with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that Israel's incursion in Gaza in response to a terrorist mortar attack was "excessive and disproportionate."

But that is not telling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon what would be appropriate and proportionate.

Roughly the same applies to Israel's air raid on Syrian military targets in Lebanon. Israel decided that government was using terrorists as surrogates to carry out dirty work, and showed the authority it was not immune. Then what?

After 80 mortar attacks, Israel determined that the Palestinian Authority had escalated and perpetrated attacks on an Israeli town. In this analysis, Israel is probably right. It claims to respond to attacks on civilians with pinpoint attacks on military positions.

What seems wrong is the hope that this will modify behavior and induce Mr. Arafat to renounce terrorism as a bargaining tool.

Rather, it drives more Palestinians into sympathy with terrorists, and governments into alliances with organizations they once suppressed. It allows terrorists to manipulate an Israeli provocation to world opinion.

An alternative policy is not easy to prescribe. Israel's doves feel betrayed by Yasser Arafat. They do not say Prime Minister Sharon has been wrong in the past week. Israel's hawks feel vindicated.

The Sharon government calls itself firm and principled, taking adequate measures to protect its people, refusing to negotiate while terrorism persists.

In this context the United States has distanced itself. It is content to stand back and just call 'em as it sees 'em.

President Bush believes President Clinton's deep involvement in the Middle East was misguided. There is no equivalent in his administration of Dennis Ross, the former Middle East coordinator.

But the deteriorating security situation cries out for a U.S. role. Secretary Powell was correct in his criticism. He just did not go far enough to suggest a way forward. That leaves a dismal outlook, for both the short and long term.

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