Mideast maelstrom

Policy: President Bush's war on terrorism can't be easily applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

April 04, 2002

FOR DAYS now, President Bush and top administration officials have been telling warring Israeli and Palestinian leaders what to do to stem the bloodshed. But the Palestinian suicide bombers kept coming and the Israeli tanks kept rolling.

Across the Arab world, anti-Israeli demonstrators filled the streets as American allies in the region feared an uglier reaction and implored the president to do more.

To his consternation, Mr. Bush is discovering that the history and politics of this fight defy the "you're either with us or against us" dictum of his war on terrorism.

It's hard not to see it in those terms, given the daily death toll in Israel from a stream of suicide bombers. Add to that the cache of anti-tank missiles -- illegal under past peace agreements -- discovered by Israel as it smashed into Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank compound. And a financial document also seized by Israel that purports to link payment for a terrorist group's "bomb-making" items to the Palestinian Authority.

But Mr. Bush has to consider that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's show of force in defending his citizens -- the destruction left behind as Israeli tanks move from one Palestinian city to the next -- may irreparably harm American interests in the region. At the same time, he has to weigh the impact of any policy decision that would appear to reward the strategy of violence employed by Palestinians.

What the administration cannot continue to do is only reprimand the two sides. That would maintain the status quo. Israel's armed forces would continue their trampling of Palestinian cities. And Mr. Arafat would continue in the role of a beleaguered and besieged patron who calls for "millions of martyrs" to join the cause.

President Bush needs a political breakthrough that would focus the parties on a negotiated settlement and the reality of a two-state solution. He must use his influence to draft Arab leaders to lean on Mr. Arafat to call off his militias. He needs to persuade Mr. Sharon to bring to a swift end his campaign against terror in the West Bank. And the president has to identify for both sides the consequence of failing to heed the United States' concerns and give his peace envoy, retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the mandate to act.

It is a daunting task, but one incumbent upon the office of the president.

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