An olive branch, terrorists and tanks

Conflict: After Palestinian terrorist attacks, the Israeli army moves against Yasser Arafat.

March 30, 2002

THE ANGEL of death walked into a seaside hotel in Israel, killing 21 in a suicide bombing at a Passover dinner. He moved to a remote Jewish settlement in the West Bank, then a Jerusalem supermarket. In 72 hours this week, 29 Israelis died at the hands of Palestinian militants.

All this as an American peace envoy struggled to mediate a cease-fire, as the Arab world extended an extraordinary offer of peace and recognition to Israel in exchange for withdrawing from occupied lands and forging an independent Palestinian state.

Then, in an early morning attack yesterday, the Israeli army stormed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's compound as the government vowed to isolate its "enemy," who barricaded himself in a windowless room.

The peace prospects of a day before have disintegrated in a deadly duel of attacks and counter-attacks. The Bush administration is faced with an even greater task now - and so far has offered few words to explain how to accomplish it.

Israel's military prowess can't and won't stop suicide bombers who manage to strike with the stealth of an avenging spirit.

Mr. Arafat remains untrustworthy and ineffectual: His last-ditch offer to order a cease-fire was of questionable intent and unlikely to succeed. But eliminating Mr. Arafat - essentially granting him martyrdom - would enrage the Palestinian streets and create a dangerous political vacuum.

The explosive nature of this latest fight convinces us that the United States needs to restart a political track to settle the 18-month conflict. Peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni must continue to work toward a cease-fire. But a second team of negotiators with U.S. and Arab sponsors should use the Saudi peace initiative approved at a Beirut summit Wednesday as a starting point for an overall settlement.

This is the hope that Palestinians need to resist the guerrilla tactics of Palestinian militants.

The goals of the Saudi plan will be difficult to achieve. But Israel would be better served by "normal relations and security" with its Arab neighbors in exchange for ending its occupation, recognizing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and finding a just solution for "the return of the refugees."

If the Saudi peace plan is the hoped-for political solution to the plight of Palestinians, then Palestinians must affirm their support for it by restraining the next suicide bomber. And Arab leaders must speak out against the same terrorists.

When will that conversation begin?

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