A matter of time

Mideast: After Cheney's trip, Washington stays focused on Iraq and the Arab-Israeli dispute.

March 23, 2002

VICE PRESIDENT Dick Cheney got an earful on his recent trip to the Middle East. From the palaces in Amman and Jiddah to the presidential houses in Cairo and Sanaa, Arab leaders voiced displeasure with a possible United States strike against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. All bluntly reminded Mr. Cheney that the threat as perceived in the Arab world exists not from Iraq but from Israel, which has been locked in a grueling war of attrition with the Palestinians.

No surprises there. But don't be mistaken: The naysaying won't dissuade President Bush from taking care of business in Iraq. It's all in the dance of diplomacy, and the push now is to secure an Israeli-Palestinian cease fire and win Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat passage to next week's Arab summit in Beirut.

Mr. Arafat, unfortunately, has yet to get with the program. He can no longer look the other way as the masked men of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades send suicide bombers to Israeli shopping areas and military checkpoints, as they did this week while President Bush's peace envoy struggled to keep alive the chances for a cease fire. Mr. Arafat's failure to curtail the group, an offshoot of his own Fatah faction, reinforces the idea that he prefers violence to peace.

Israel must resist the inclination to retaliate, and leave it to the Bush administration to force Mr. Arafat's hand. Stern words from the president, a testy call from the secretary of state and placing the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades on the U.S. list of terror organizations should carry some weight.

But more is riding on this cease fire than a cessation of violence in the 18-month conflict. All roads lead to Baghdad. That is the administration's priority.

Unlike Mr. Cheney's August 1990 trip to the region after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the vice president wasn't out to convince Arab leaders of the urgency to move against Mr. Hussein or seek their permission for a strike. He was dispatched to press President Bush's firm intention to oust Mr. Hussein.

Mr. Cheney offered incentives that should smooth the way if and when the administration decides to act against Iraq: an invitation to the Saudi crown prince to visit Mr. Bush's Texas ranch in the spring; praise for Yemen's efforts in the war on terrorism; $228 million in aid to Turkey to lead the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

The most tangible reflection of the administration's seriousness in pursuing the Iraq option is its re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The bloodbath there threatens America's short- and long-range interests.

Mr. Bush concentrated the power of his office in peace envoy Anthony Zinni, and rightly so. Mr. Cheney arrived in the Holy Land for 24 hours, long enough to remind the world of America's strong ties to the Jewish state and to reaffirm its belief that Mr. Arafat wasn't doing enough to alter the violence equation. By refusing to meet with the Palestinian leader, Mr. Cheney upped the ante: Get engaged, Yasser, and I'll be back.

A cease fire on the Israeli-Palestinian front would set the stage for the Arab summit in Beirut and a discussion of the Saudi peace initiative. The plan offers a starting point for discussion of a settlement that would be felt in Jerusalem, the Palestinian areas - and Baghdad.

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