IN THE WEEKS preceding today's meeting with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken a series of steps aimed at appeasing his Washington host. Israeli soldiers have dismantled more than a dozen illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. The Sharon government agreed to a plan that will free up millions of dollars in tax revenues previously withheld from the Palestinian Authority. And the Israeli army is considering a possible withdrawal from a second Palestinian-controlled city, Hebron.
Add to that Mr. Sharon's public plea to Palestinians that they replace their "dictatorial regime," and the former general arrives at the White House saying he is doing what he can to live up to Mr. Bush's expectations of Israel in resolving the Middle East conflict as the president outlined in June. Mr. Sharon's strategy makes political sense. But it shouldn't keep Mr. Bush from continuing to press Israel to curtail the military operations that have consistently resulted in the deaths of Palestinian civilians.
These days, the Bush administration has been preoccupied with marshaling support for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. The troubles of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been superseded, leaving the parties there to their own devices. And it shows. Palestinian militants have renewed terrorist attacks in Israel, and Israel's military response has intensified. Palestinian reforms are at a standstill, and Yasser Arafat's security forces in the Gaza Strip are locked in a power struggle with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
And yet when Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon meet today, Iraq will most certainly be at the center of their discussions. The president must convince the prime minister that he should refrain from retaliating if Iraq again launches missiles at Israel during a U.S.-led attack on Baghdad. Mr. Sharon has said repeatedly that his government would not sit idly by as Israel did during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The consequences of an Israeli strike would be greater now, especially if the United States fails to rally a coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein. Anti-American feeling in the Arab world is already high, in large part because of the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Israeli strike against Iraq might engulf the entire region in war - a dire prospect.
Reports from Israel suggest Mr. Sharon would agree to a U.S. request under the proviso that he not be forced to accept a Bush settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of an Iraqi war. But Mr. Bush shouldn't compromise the future of Israelis and Palestinians to achieve his aims in Baghdad. He will have to find another way to appease his guest.