The Baltimore Sun

Middle East mayhem

June 12, 2003

THE PRESIDENTIAL intervention, the words of diplomacy, the handshakes of conciliation didn't deter Palestinian militants from their mission: five Israeli soldiers shot to death. The promise of peace couldn't stop Israel from retaliating with a targeted assassination of a Hamas leader who vowed revenge. As the White House reacted with harsh words for the renewed violence and the "road map" to peace hit a dead end, a Palestinian suicide bomber stepped aboard a Jerusalem bus yesterday, killing at least 16.

But the cycle of reprisals didn't end. Last night, Israel launched a military strike over Gaza. Seven Palestinians died there. It is grimly apparent that the interplay of attack and counterattack that has dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the fall of 2000 cannot subside long enough for either side to make a move toward peace.

An angry and disappointed President Bush, who involved himself directly in the Mideast peace process by hosting last week's summit in Jordan, has decried the violence. He is dispatching a new envoy to the region. But to what end? The situation doesn't bode well for a restoration of the U.S.-backed road map that calls for an immediate cessation of violence and a Palestinian state by 2005.

The Palestinian terrorist groups, some opposed to the very existence of Israel, have balked at efforts for a cease-fire and undermined the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, in the process. Negotiation is about the best Mr. Abbas can offer right now. He has refused to move against the militants politically - large demonstrations followed the Israeli assassination attempt on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Mr. Abbas can't do it as a practical matter - Palestinian security forces have yet to be overhauled to deal forcefully with militants. That vacuum needs to be closed. It leaves Israel open to attack - and to respond.

Confronted with terrorists, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated to Washington and the world yesterday that "Israel will, under no circumstances whatsoever, make concessions regarding counterterrorist operations."

So where does that leave Mr. Bush and the advocates of peace? On the road to nowhere, unless he and others, including Arab supporters, can effect a pause in the action. Mr. Bush was right to urge Middle East interests to stem the flow of funds and support to the terrorist groups and help rebuild the Palestinian security forces. He has to use the power of his office to persuade Israel to give Palestinian leaders time to train their security forces, and then assist them in the fight against the militant groups. Even in the best of times, when Israeli-Palestinian forces cooperated on security matters, terrorist attacks didn't cease, but they did subside.

If Mr. Abbas can't persuade the militants to lay down their arms, he has to commit to vigilantly pursue those who are intent on perpetrating violence.

As officials here and abroad scramble to try and assert control over a process out of control, Israelis and Palestinians will be burying their dead today. The funerals will only multiply in the absence of a negotiated peace.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun