October 7, 2003

A Turn for the Worse in the Mideast

A weekend of despicable Palestinian terror and a recklessly inappropriate Israeli military reprisal deep inside Syria has ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East at a particularly difficult moment for American policy there. President Bush should now be urgently counseling all parties to exercise restraint while his administration embarks on a new push to revive moribund peace efforts. Instead, Mr. Bush has unwisely chosen to encourage the most hawkish impulses of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, reassuring him in private on Sunday and again in public yesterday that Israel "must not feel constrained" in defending itself. Neither American nor Israeli interests are well served by such provocative advice.

By bombing what it says was a Palestinian terrorist training camp in Syria, Israel hopes to pressure Damascus to crack down on Palestinian terrorists and to demand that the Palestinian Authority do the same. Yet by drawing additional countries directly into its intractable conflict with the Palestinians, Israel makes a political solution for the core conflict that much more difficult. It also threatens to make America's role in the Middle East, including in postwar Iraq, even more problematic than it already is.

Mr. Bush has tied together the strings of his Middle East policy, promoting the invasion of Iraq as a step toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. With his political future in mind, he ought to be sending Mr. Sharon clear signals that greater restraint is imperative.

The depressing frequency of Palestinian suicide bombings should numb no one to their horror. Saturday's attack on a crowded Haifa restaurant was particularly repellent, if such distinctions can even be made. It brought random death to 19 innocent people, Jewish and Arab, one day before the most sacred date on the Jewish calendar. Such calculated acts of mass murder constitute the greatest single obstacle to diplomatic progress, eventual Palestinian statehood and real peace.

Americans fully understand that no Israeli government can accept endless terrorism. Yet Palestinian violence ought not to lead Israel across a military threshold it has wisely respected for three decades. While Syria has never recognized Israel, the two countries have worked hard to avoid open warfare since the 1973 war ended in a crushing Syrian defeat. Mr. Sharon's actions pointlessly risk reopening armed conflict across what has long been a peaceful border. Washington should be far more vocal in warning against this danger.

Mr. Bush's failure to do so is disappointing but not surprising. Through nearly three years of spiraling violence in the Middle East, his administration has too often remained on the sidelines. Its one serious venture in peace diplomacy, last spring, was quickly abandoned. While Washington has rightly called for the emergence of responsible and peaceful Palestinian leaders, it has consistently failed to press Israel to take the kind of steps that could help such leaders succeed, like a halt to settlement building. A more responsible American course is needed to turn the Middle East's attention back to peace and discourage any drift toward wider war.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company