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Published: Friday, 4/26/2002

Middle East engagement

Whether from fatigue or stalemate - and with sadness and grieving on both sides - the hot war in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians seems to be scaling down. While the United States may be tempted to try to keep its distance in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell's unsuccessful mission to the region, it does not have that luxury.

The problem - land for the Palestinians, security for the Israelis - remains, waiting only for a new dramatic event to set off more widespread violence. There are new elements, most of them not very encouraging. Israelis and Palestinians seem to be negotiating at a low level to end the revolting face-off at the Church of the Nativity. The Israel Defense Force has withdrawn to a degree from the West Bank.

On the other hand, the violence has now spread to Gaza, as well as continuing - albeit at a lower level - in the West Bank and Israel itself. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat stays cooped up in Ramallah. There isn't much left of the Palestinian Authority in any case after nearly a month of Israeli pounding. How Mr. Arafat can be an effective interlocutor in the unavoidable, eventual serious talks about the future between the Israelis and the Palestinians is hard to say. He emerges from the hard-bitten situation of the past few weeks angrier and more bitter and thus even harder to deal with, but with his prestige enhanced by the pounding he has lived through.

What the United States must do now is return to the problem with renewed calm and undiminished persistence. This cup will not pass. Whether Americans like it, the United States remains Israel's security guarantee. Put another way, if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, through his aggressive policies of pounding the Palestinians into insensibility and continuing to build settlements, manages to avoid a land-for-security agreement, or, even worse, involves Israel in a regional war, the United States remains the father who has to come pull Israel out of the fight.

The first step should be to talk to the Europeans. They will inevitably tell Washington to use the $3 billion a year in aid and U.S. security guarantees to Israelis to make them play ball. It will need to be explained to them carefully that neither the Clinton Administration, nor the Bush Administration, nor any other American government, could do that. If the Europeans were thinking responsibly, beyond their own energy situation, they would also tell the Bush Administration to squeeze the Arab Gulf states to cut off the Palestinians, to encourage them to see reason in negotiations.

The United States needs at this time to be active in pursuit of a long-term resolution. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah's “land for recognition” proposal, endorsed by the March 27-28 Arab League Summit, is a good starting point from which to work.

The Bush Administration tried benign neglect in its approach to the Middle East - understandably given the more urgent priorities presented by the events of Sept. 11. In the end, inattention to the problem was followed by the carnage of suicide bombers in Israel and the horror of armored bulldozers ripping through Palestinian structures.

Unfortunately there is no rest for Americans in this affair. The United States must return to the struggle to find peace through a workable agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Nothing less will do.



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