A worrisome development

October 16, 2003

TARGETING an American diplomatic convoy for an unprecedented and lethal attack in Palestinian-controlled territory portends an ominous shift in the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yesterday's roadside bomb can be viewed in two ways: The sponsors of the egregious attack are expanding the terrorist campaign under way, which would signal a significant escalation of the 3-year-old war. Or militants set out to expose the impotence of the Palestinian Authority and sink its tenuous relationship with the United States.

There is a third and more troubling prospect: that a new terrorist element, unnamed and unknown, has entered the fray.

Whatever the scenario, the Bush administration cannot afford to simply proclaim its outrage. To do nothing else would leave its diplomats, staff and Americans generally open to more attacks from elements that view civilians as expendable. The very nature of the attack sadly illustrates the deplorable situation there and the absence of a viable, diplomatic effort to alter its course. Among the staff driving in three armored vans in the northern Gaza Strip were cultural attaches on their way to interview Palestinian candidates for Fulbright scholarships to study or teach in the United States. Killed in the attack were three American security guards.

Acting Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, like his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to forcibly move against the Palestinian militant groups. He and his boss, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, can't continue to parrot this refrain. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday emphasized to the Palestinian leadership that the realization of an independent Palestine under a two-state negotiated settlement depends on halting terrorism. If the Palestinians won't take action, the Bush administration has already shown its willingness to let the Israelis do it for them. That can only mean more targeted assassinations, more house demolitions, more pain and suffering for Palestinians.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, three sponsors of terror attacks, disavowed responsibility for the roadside bomb. Palestinian security officials, however, should insist on any help from these groups that would lead to an arrest of suspects.

At the same time, Mr. Powell and other administration officials must re-engage themselves in a diplomatic effort to end a conflict that has left thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis dead, devastated two economies and seared a landscape of sublime beauty.

During this past week, a group of Israeli and Palestinian liberals and moderates were trying to promote an alternative peace plan developed under the auspices of the Swiss government. The Israeli government sneered at the proposal; Palestinian leaders were less judgmental. But in a land with such a dearth of creative and constructive dialogue, a good-faith effort such as this deserves at least a hearing. The roadside attack on the American convoy is a very serious warning sign that both sides should heed.

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