U.S. fails to act as chance for Mideast peace ebbs

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is leading his country toward a long-term tragedy, and the Bush administration seems content to merely follow in his footsteps. The consequences of doing so will be damaging to Israel, damaging to the United States and damaging to the overall war against terrorism.

In recent weeks, Israel has attacked neighboring Syria and announced the expansion of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Its Cabinet has voted to remove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, perhaps even by assassination, and the Sharon government has begun to extend a wall deep into Palestinian land, in effect trying to permanently annex that territory to Israel in violation of international law.

None of those steps will in any way reduce terrorism or advance the cause of peace in that troubled region. Each reflects Sharon's failed strategy -- a strategy that dictates that brute force, brutally applied, is always the best way of defending Israel. And in each case, the most the United States could muster in the way of criticism has been a quiet "tsk tsk tsk," accompanied by a wink and a nod.

Removing Arafat from the West Bank -- or even killing him -- would still leave some 3 million Palestinians seething at Israeli occupation and continued territorial expansion. In fact, Israel's mere talk of such a step has rejuvenated Arafat in the eyes of his people; his actual murder would make Arafat far more powerful as a martyr than he has ever been in life.

Likewise, the decisions to expand settlements and to extend the "separation fence" deep into the West Bank can only be read for what they are -- blunt Israeli statements that Jewish settlements in occupied areas are now considered permanent and are not subject to negotiation. Such steps render moot any talk of exchanging land for peace, which is supposed to be the core of U.S. policy to bring peace to that region.

But again, the Bush administration has done little to protest.

Many Israelis do recognize the true nature of the danger facing their nation, and the shrinking time frame in which that danger might be avoided. In an extraordinary piece published just a month ago, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg warned that "the Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice."

"We could kill a thousand ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing will be solved," Burg wrote, "because the leaders come up from below from the wells of hatred and anger."

Hanadi Jaradat, a 27-year-old Palestinian lawyer, was Burg's warning made real. In June, she witnessed her brother and cousin shot dead by Israeli troops who had come to arrest them. Last weekend, she walked into a busy restaurant in Haifa and blew herself up, along with 19 innocent people.

Afterward, the Israelis blew up her family home, and her 15-year-old brother celebrated.

"We are receiving congratulations from people," Thaher Jaradat said. "Why should we cry? It is like her wedding today."

Neither Sharon nor Arafat possesses the vision needed to break that cycle and serve as peacemaker. President Bush, by his unwillingness to act independently of Sharon, has ceded that role as well.