Another unilateral move

March 17, 2006

If Ariel Sharon embodies Israel's warrior-kings, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert represents the country's class of political princes. As such, Mr. Olmert, the leading candidate for prime minister, needs to bolster his military bona fides. Israel's assault on a Palestinian prison this week will no doubt bolster Mr. Olmert's strongman credentials, but the Israeli army's incursion into Jericho shouldn't be viewed solely as a political power play. It's worrisome because it widens the chasm in Israeli-Palestinian relations since the militant group Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament.

The assault graphically shows how easily this conflict could return to a military-style confrontation, the fragile cease-fire of the last year overtaken by a barrage of attacks and counterattacks. The Israelis say they stormed the Jericho prison to ensure that the Palestinian assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister were not released, and they were right to be concerned. The Palestinians held the murderers in a special arrangement brokered with U.S. help after the 2001 murder. But American and British officials had complained repeatedly to the Palestinians about lax security at the prison to no avail, pulled out their monitors and paved the way for the Israeli assault.

Israel acted on its own because it won't deal with the new Hamas-led government, which has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. As long as Hamas holds to its anti-Israel stance, it will suffer the consequences of Israel's unilateral actions.

Mr. Olmert has publicly discussed his intention, if elected the next prime minister, to pull out from areas of the West Bank, abandon some settlements there, and withdraw behind Israel's security barrier. Many Israelis favor just such a separation from the Palestinians. Hamas would find itself overseeing a pseudo-state on a patchwork of territory with borders of someone else's design.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Europeans are likely to intervene in a unilateral withdrawal by Israel if Hamas refuses to compromise. The U.S. and its European allies have withheld millions in economic aid to the Palestinians because of Hamas' untenable position.

Mr. Sharon's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip last year carried with it the hope that such a dramatic move would improve prospects for a negotiated peace. That's the goal: Israelis and Palestinians jointly deciding their future as two states existing side by side.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with help from her European counterparts, must find a way to break the current stalemate and forge a path for dialogue. And Hamas leaders should remember that Palestinians voted for them because they wanted a better life and an end to corruption. Now they are facing continued impoverishment and isolation.

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