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Published: Wednesday, 7/19/2006

Stop the fighting

SOMEONE, somehow, needs to take action now to bring the spreading conflagration in the Middle East to an end.

So far, the United States, though it is the only credible shepherd of a Middle East peace process, isn't helping the situation. President Bush, at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit, took the position that Israel has a right to defend itself - an obvious point. He has urged restraint, but it is a plea that all parties to the conflict are ignoring.

Mr. Bush has also been seeking to shift blame for what is going on in Lebanon, northern Israel, and Gaza from Hezbollah and Israel to Iran and Syria, as if widening the conflict into a truly regional war were to the advantage of any of the parties, not to mention the United States, which is already fully engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the toll of casualties in Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza rises, including Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, and some unfortunate Canadian tourists. The damage list is long, including Beirut international airport; sites in Haifa, Israel; Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and in Gaza. Those who admired Lebanese efforts to rebuild their country after the 1975-90 civil war are particularly distressed by the bombing there, which has undone that work.

International efforts to bring an end to the fighting have been ineffective and not even very thoughtful.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan have proposed that an international, U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force be inserted into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from continuing the rocket attacks into northern Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces are using those assaults as the basis for their continued air attacks and sea blockade against Lebanon.

This proposal has so far gained no traction; Israel has already rejected it. Israel says that it wants instead for the Lebanese armed forces to assume control of southern Lebanon and bring Hezbollah under control, an action the Lebanese armed forces have neither the consensus nor the firepower to achieve. It is also difficult to imagine what countries would be prepared to contribute personnel to an international force.

A credible Middle East peace process that could pressure the parties to call off the fighting and return to the negotiating table is the big missing piece at this point. The road map to peace and a two-state settlement was put forward by Mr. Bush in 2002, an effort to assure that the unresolved problem between the Israelis and Palestinians would not serve as the basis for another 9/11-type attack against the United States.

Absent a peace process, the smoke now rising over Haifa in northern Israel, Beirut, and Gaza, will inevitably continue, given the anger and extremism that exists among some of the parties in the region.

The only way to attack the problem is for the United States and other international parties to return quickly and systematically to active diplomacy that engages Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran in finding a settlement of the issue, to achieve a ceasefire now and peace in the long run. A hot war in the Middle East is simply not tolerable.



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