Without a serious peace push by Bush, Mideast in big trouble

July 11, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADEPHIA -- No one should be surprised that Israel would react harshly when Palestinians shell its towns and kidnap an Israeli soldier from within its pre-1967 borders. A Hamas government that tolerates - or can't control - such behavior is asking for drastic retaliation.

But let's hope the spiraling violence in Gaza will shake the White House out of its dangerous lethargy on the Palestinian issue. Israel and the Palestinians on their own can't keep the situation from deteriorating further.

Unless President Bush embarks on a major effort to get the sides back on a negotiating track, things will get worse. Israeli-Palestinian violence will escalate, and this will shred the remnants of Bush policy in the Middle East.

To salvage the situation, the White House first must recognize its folly in endorsing a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza - the brainchild of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Bush said the withdrawal would create a chance for a proto-democracy in Gaza. This was a gross misreading of the situation.

A unilateral pullout not linked to broader peace negotiations was bound to benefit Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that refuses to recognize Israel and wants to fight, not talk. Hamas claimed the withdrawal proved that only violence would push Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza.

Had Mr. Sharon openly coordinated the transfer with moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' appeal might have been blunted. Mr. Abbas' Fatah party might have won the January elections. But Mr. Bush never urged his close ally, Mr. Sharon, to take this approach. So Palestinians, who were frustrated at the lack of talks and fed up with corruption inside Fatah, elected a Hamas government to power.

Yet the Bush team claimed it never saw a Hamas victory coming. Even more amazing, Mr. Bush recently hailed the "bold ideas" of Israel's new leader, Ehud Olmert, when he proposed another unilateral withdrawal from a large portion of the West Bank. Doesn't anyone in the administration get the message being pounded into our heads by the noise from Gaza: Unilateral withdrawals, delinked from negotiations, do not work?

Pulling back from parts of the West Bank while keeping other chunks and all of Jerusalem won't end the fighting. It will provoke more bloodshed: shelling from outside the security fence, more Palestinian attacks against Israeli settlers and more suicide bombs.

But Israelis rightly ask: Which Palestinians can they talk to? They can't negotiate with Hamas so long as it won't recognize the existence of their state.

This brings us to the vital role of the United States in salvaging the impasse, a role the White House has been trying hard to avoid.

The reason Bush officials glommed on to the idea of unilateral withdrawals was that it relieved them of having to mediate this messy conflict. They were mindful of the failures of previous administrations, including Bill Clinton's. They also once dreamed that success in Iraq would make it easier to resolve the Palestinian issue. That dream is dead.

At this point, the White House faces very difficult choices. The president can cling to the hope that Gazans' suffering will turn the population against the radicals who shell Israel and that the Hamas government will be toppled. He can hope Israel may retrieve the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a prisoner exchange, and the violence will die down. These hopes are misplaced.

Pressure on Hamas can yield results only if Palestinians see that its violence is blocking their chances of gaining a viable state. Only then will they turn against Hamas. But that won't happen unless the White House - together with European and Arab allies, and maybe the Russians - formulates a plan for two states that gives Palestinians an incentive to look for better leaders. It must be a detailed plan, one that holds out a long-term carrot for Palestinian leaders willing to recognize Israel and control the violence. Washington and its allies must guarantee Israel's security under such a plan.

The violence in Gaza threatens Israel's future, America's interests and the fate of the entire region. Past negotiations failed because final details of a state were never laid out in advance of talks and held out as a reward for prescribed Palestinian behavior. If Mr. Bush wants to leave his mark on the Mideast, he should summon the courage to produce such a plan.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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