The next move in a deadly game

Mideast: Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a chance to move beyond the cycle of violence.

March 15, 2002

THE RETIRED general and the aging guerrilla fighter are contemplating their next moves.

The U.S. Middle East peace envoy has embarked on his mission, dispatched by President Bush to wrestle a cease-fire from the fists of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The enmity of their pasts, the political dynamics of the present work against a timely resolution of the current cycle of violence that has Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israeli civilians and their way of life and the Israeli army storming Palestinian cities and refugee camps to round up armed terrorists.

Leadership -- not posturing, obstinacy or indifference -- is required now to halt the violence and lay the groundwork for negotiations that can offer the hope of a peaceful future. And it is incumbent upon the warring neighbors and their American mediator to display it.

Retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni arrives with a Herculean mission -- to negotiate a cease-fire and mediate the implementation of the so-called Tenet plan.

The ex-Marine needs to be resourceful and resilient and go the distance. President Bush has said he wouldn't have sent Mr. Zinni if he didn't believe progress could be made.

But the trip coincides with Vice President Dick Cheney's tour of Arab capitals to discuss the administration's quest to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Arab leaders -- and more important, their citizenry -- are more concerned about the fate of an independent Palestine than the retirement of the Iraqi dictator. If Mr. Zinni were to leave without putting forth a strong effort, we would question the administration's intentions on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

In the past month, Prime Minister Sharon has waged a punishing offensive against Palestinian suicide bombers, roadside snipers and attacks by gunmen. But hours before Mr. Zinni's plane landed in Tel Aviv, he ordered Israeli tanks and troops to begin withdrawing from Ramallah, the center of Palestinian political and cultural life. The army had overtaken the city, cut many utilities, imposed a curfew and engaged in gunbattles with Palestinian militias.

In recent days, he offered other concessions to an increasingly agitated American president. He rescinded his condition that there must be seven violence-free days before he would talk with the Palestinians, and he lifted a travel ban on Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon says he wants a cease-fire. Without it, he means to pummel the Palestinians in a war of attrition. Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority may be corrupt and ineffectual, but its demise is not Mr. Sharon's to decide.

The far right in Mr. Sharon's Cabinet wants him to stay this fighting course. But the Israeli prime minister needs to articulate a broader strategy for peace, lest he remain only an embattled military man.

As for Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader cannot remain holed up in his Ramallah headquarters. The terrorist attacks may have served his purposes to get the Bush administration re-engaged in the process. But now is the time to convene a meeting of Palestinian militants, those settling scores in the name of Islam and those linked to his Fatah political faction.

Now that the American peace envoy is there, it's time for Israel's retired general and the Palestinians' aging guerrilla fighter to shed those roles and become what the world expects and their people deserve -- statesmen.

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