Deadlines and demands

July 04, 2006

Israel doesn't respond to ultimatums from terrorists, even when the life of one of its soldiers is at stake. That's been a given in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestinians, whether the terrorists were loyal to the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Islamic militant group Hamas. So when Hamas' military wing yesterday conditioned the freedom of a kidnapped Israeli soldier on the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners, the demand was a phony pretext. It was a setup for potentially stronger Israeli strikes against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip than those endured during the current spate of retaliatory blows.

Hamas leaders in Syria, the patrons of its suicide squads, are to blame for this latest confrontation, which began with a June 25 attack on an Israeli military outpost in which two soldiers were killed and a 19-year-old corporal captured. This provocation has served one real aim - to enhance the political standing of Hamas' exiled leaders while marginalizing elected Hamas moderates in Gaza who were left running for cover. Israel had to respond - it rightly recognized the June 25 strike and kidnapping as a resumption of Hamas' campaign of violence.

But its strikes in Gaza have rattled Palestinian civilians more than they have Hamas operatives. And they have united Palestinians behind their beleaguered, ineffective government.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's imperative to the army to "do all it can" to rescue Cpl. Gilad Shalit is understandable; Israelis are like the Marines in that they won't abandon one of their own. But the danger is that the two sides will be driven into ever more violent and irreconcilable positions.

Considering the history of this conflict - and the two sides' penchant for repeating history - the necessity for a third party to intervene should have been apparent from the outset. Attempts by Egypt to mediate a settlement were unsuccessful. But the job shouldn't have been Egypt's alone. The problem is that the United States and its European allies have isolated the new Palestinian leadership, politically and economically. Both have withheld aid to the Hamas-led government for its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce violence. The Bush administration's demonization of Syria, a patron of the Hamas military leadership in Damascus, hasn't helped matters, either.

The White House should persuade other leaders in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, to intervene here. Leaving matters as they are would threaten a return to the violence that engulfed Israelis and Palestinians in 2000 and led to thousands of deaths over five years.

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