When a president speaks

October 08, 2003

WHEN A PALESTINIAN woman walks into a beachfront restaurant in Israel and explodes the suicide bomb about her waist, who wouldn't react to the deaths of 19 innocent people with horror? Many would expect Israel to react forcefully after surveying the grisly scene of devastation and death at Maxim in Haifa. Count George W. Bush among them.

But the president's reaction to Israel's retaliatory strike at an alleged terrorist training camp in Syria strayed dangerously close to an endorsement of unilateral, cross-border attacks in the name of defending one's country. Is there any other way to read Mr. Bush's comments "that Israel's got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in defending the homeland"? Not even the best political spinmeister could parse the president's meaning any other way.

Mr. Bush's comments can only serve to escalate the very situation he has cautioned Israel to avoid escalating. His sympathies can only reinforce the prevailing view in the Arab world that the United States can never be an honest broker in negotiating an end to Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Bush has defended Israel in the past. But Israel's bombing within Syria -- a first in 30 years -- raised the prospect that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is willing to expand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond its present borders. Syria's support of terrorism is well-known, but the camp hit by the Israelis reportedly hasn't been used recently and it was West Bank militants who organized the Haifa attack. Israel may have intended a symbolic attack outside Damascus, but the region cannot withstand a widening of this conflict.

Mr. Bush's comments also indicate that the president isn't prepared to do the hard work, to make the tough calls -- and expend the political capital -- necessary to secure a negotiated settlement in this conflict that has claimed the lives of 2,200 Palestinians and more than 800 Israelis in the past three years. Mr. Bush is absolutely right to condition an independent Palestinian state on the end of the terror campaigns waged by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the patron of this recent suicide bomber. But his fist-pounding and admonishment that the Palestinian Authority crack down on militant groups won't make it happen.

Each side continues to do what it wants to do -- or not do. Israel is pushing ahead with construction of a controversial security fence and new housing units in West Bank settlements -- both opposed by the United States. The same is true of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, who have refused to confront and dismantle the militant groups.

The president cannot content himself with strong words without considering the consequences. If Mr. Bush won't back up his stated desire for a peaceful settlement with actions, he will have squandered the power of his presidency in an area of the world that requires it.

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