Israel stands tough as Powell arrives

April 12, 2002

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon may think it's not in his interest to withdraw Israeli tanks and troops from the major Palestinian cities of the West Bank.

And he may feel emboldened by several factors: He has the support of his citizens, Israel's influential friends in Congress are speaking out on its behalf, and Wednesday's suicide bombing in Israel's north reinforced his reasons for his war on terror.

Even President Bush's spokesman seemed to give Mr. Sharon a pass yesterday on complying with the president's insistence that Israel withdraw "without delay" from the Palestinian territories.

But Mr. Sharon's reasoning is flawed. Today, when he meets with America's top diplomat, he will hear first-hand why it is in the long-term interest of neither Israel nor the United States to push ahead with this punishing offensive.

Mr. Sharon may be a tough-minded former general, but he also is a pragmatist. He may even believe, however mistakenly, that his tough stance will help Mr. Powell in his discussions with Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon has not been moved by criticism from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations; Germany's suspension of arms sales; or the European-proposed trade sanctions against the Jewish state, whose once robust economy is sinking.

The reason may well be this: The desire of Israelis to live without the daily threat of suicide attacks outweighs any threat of isolation from the greater international community.

And what can be expected of Palestinians at this critical hour?

Even with Israeli-imposed curfews, Palestinian cities in ruins and thousands of their men in Israeli custody, one militant still slipped through Israel's military web to detonate a bomb on a commuter bus this week.

So far, neither Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat nor Arab leaders have acceded to Mr. Bush's request to publicly renounce suicide bombers and the campaign of terror waged in the past 18 months to end Israel's 35-year occupation. That too will have to change.

For Mr. Powell, Israel and the Palestinian territories are the ground zero of his peacemaking mission. Mr. Powell has already conceded that a cease-fire is not essential, but the secretary of state is not going to go home empty-handed. His reputation is at stake, and more importantly, so is President Bush's.

All this is to say that Mr. Powell will have to exact some security assurances for Israel. Even if Mr. Sharon agrees to pull back the Israeli troops as a gesture to Mr. Bush, the quiet will be short-lived if Palestinians aren't provided with hope that a political solution is in the offing.

Mr. Powell will be expecting Mr. Arafat to take substantive action against the militants under his control. But the destruction wrought by the Israeli offensive and the untold deaths among Palestinians have toughened Palestinian resolve. The Palestinians know what it is to suffer, and they have embraced it.

Israel's Operation Defensive Shield may have scored victories - some terrorist leaders have been killed, 121 suspects have been captured, caches of weapons have been confiscated and explosives destroyed.

But it hasn't dampened Palestinians' desire to fight for freedom and a state of their own; rather, it has only delayed their ability to act on it.

In the week since Mr. Bush offered Israelis and Arabs his tough-love version of the path to peace, he may have realized that resolving this conflict will require him to apply pressures he is not yet prepared to use.

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