U.S. credibility at stake

April 09, 2002

WHAT'S A president to do?

George W. Bush has spared no one in his tough talk about the bloodletting in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Not Israel's prime minister, nor his Palestinian counterpart and leaders of the Arab world. He condemned those who glorify and finance suicide bombers. He reminded those who attack in the name of rooting out terror that their pummeling may undermine the long-term security they so covet.

But by both parties, Mr. Bush has been largely ignored.

That has left the president, who overcame reluctance to enter this intractable fight, understandably miffed. And it has left Secretary of State Colin Powell downplaying what can be accomplished on the Mideast mission to which he has been dispatched.

Mr. Powell is not a man to be envied. The former general's reputation as America's top diplomat will be tested on this trip. And America's allies in the Mideast aren't making it easy for him.

Just yesterday, Mr. Sharon pledged in a speech to the Israeli parliament to stay the course of his bloody invasion "until the mission is accomplished."

What is it about the phrase withdraw "without delay" that the Israeli prime minister doesn't understand? Late yesterday, Israeli defense officials pledged to withdraw from two smaller West Bank towns, but the Israeli offensive continues in larger Palestinian centers.

Mr. Sharon's decision to accept into his government two members of a right-wing, pro-settlement political party also doesn't bode well for peace prospects; neither does his courting of the telegenic former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who takes an even harsher line against the Palestinians and delivers it in well-spoken English.

Mr. Powell doesn't arrive in Israel until the end of the week, which is more than enough time for Mr. Sharon to extricate his troops from areas of the West Bank.

At the same time, Arab leaders have to realize that encouraging young Palestinians to strap on bombs in suicide missions robs Palestinian society of its most precious resource. To indulge this murderous mindset sullies the Palestinians' cause and undermines their legitimate right to live freely in their own state. Mr. Powell is relying on moderate Arab leaders to persuade Mr. Arafat to clamp down on the militants who plot the reign of terror, recruit the young for suicide missions, manufacture and deliver the bombs and then boast of their lethal success. They should not disappoint.

For his part, Mr. Powell should assure Arab leaders that he will meet with Mr. Arafat, if only to gauge the Palestinian leader's ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

In his speech last week, Mr. Bush deftly and correctly linked the fates of the children of Abraham. Not so long ago, Israelis and Palestinians embraced the idea of putting aside mistrust, hatred and pain for a better life, for a better future. As the president said, violence and grief have been the region's past. The children of Abraham have to decide if violence and grief will also be their fate.

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