Pay attention

January 07, 2003

ISRAELIS WERE saying yesterday that the gory double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv does not really mark a significant turning point in the endless Middle East conflict. The relative quiet that had descended over Israel the last few months was illusory. Dozens of would-be terrorists have been trying to get through to their targets; it's just that Israeli security forces had caught them all, until Sunday.

And even so, the killings had continued -- a few at a time, barely newsworthy. Since Dec. 1, for instance, 69 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis.

For two months, though, the world's attention was focused on Iraq, and, increasingly, North Korea.

In the run-up to elections, Israeli politics has been consumed by a corruption scandal in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party -- insider stuff that hardly made a dent in the consciousness of places like Washington.

Now there's a big dent -- or there should be -- because if the suicide bombers didn't exactly achieve a breakthrough with their act, they certainly provided a reminder that nothing and no one in the Middle East can be taken for granted.

Consider one of the more interesting arguments that backers of an American war against Iraq have put forward: That a post-Hussein, democratic Iraq could become a powerful force for good throughout the region. Neighboring tyrannies would crumple once a well-mannered and vibrant political culture of inclusion took root in Baghdad.

OK, but if the United States is going to try to take that high road and convince Muslims elsewhere in the region and throughout the world that it is doing so, it cannot at the same time ignore the realities of Israel and Palestine.

A victory for democratic values in Iraq is hollow without a recognition of the problems virtually next door. And in the Arab world, the Bush administration has become so closely identified with Mr. Sharon's government that not to act to restore the peace process is to become a part of the problem.

And, unfortunately, "not to act" pretty well sums up the White House approach.

Over the past three decades, there has been movement toward peace and relaxation in the Middle East only when American presidents have gotten involved, talking, massaging, knocking heads. Without American attention -- for better or for worse -- the place starts to unravel.

The current occupant of the White House may wish to keep the Israelis and the Palestinians off the front pages, in order to stay focused on his own objectives, but all it takes is two terrorists and about 40 pounds of explosives to blow those hopes sky high.

Israel is responding in its usual blunt manner. The United States offers its condolences to the families of the 23 people, several of them foreign workers, who died. This is entirely appropriate.

But now the White House must take the next step, and show the world that it cares about peace in Israel and the occupied territories before it launches war in Iraq.

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