Egypt targets radicals

June 16, 2003

The heart-rending Middle East violence during the past week has no single or simple solution. But Egypt demonstrated one essential element Sunday. Its mediators sat down with Palestinian militants to persuade them to halt the kind of suicide attacks that — along with Israeli reprisals — have left at least 60 dead.

The Egyptian gesture is hardly going to do the trick alone, of course. But it is a timely example for other Arab leaders of the type of acts that could begin choking off extremism. It also shows how the moderate Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain can make good on their June 3 pledge along with Egypt to crack down on terrorism and the financing of Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas.

Follow-through by Egypt and follow-up by its fellow Arab states can begin the real strangulation of Hamas and other extremist organizations determined to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue. As in the U.S. war on al-Qaeda, these terrorist groups and the source of their funds need to be identified and rooted out. President Bush, who had persuaded the four Arab states to wage an anti-terror campaign, underlined the point Sunday, saying Hamas and similar organizations must be dealt with "harshly."

That's a tall order, particularly since the Arab leaders who renounced terrorism risk a backlash among their populations, which fervently back the Palestinian cause. And the most hard-core state sponsors of Palestinian extremism, most notably Syria, have remained silent.

Still, Egypt's weekend efforts are encouraging. Middle East peace negotiators have long identified the active engagement of Arab countries as a key to any credible settlement. Their involvement also fits neatly into an emerging Bush administration foreign-policy approach: to pressure problem countries by involving neighbors and all available tools, from political to economic.

This week, the U.S. is intensifying its own diplomatic efforts to stop the violence. Bush's new regional envoy, John Wolf, is holding talks with Palestinians and Israelis, and Secretary of State Colin Powell plans a trip to the Middle East. At the same time, the United Nations, France and key U.S. senators are floating the idea of sending international troops to the region.

Amid all of the movement, moderate Arab nations have their own supporting roles to play — if only they choose to act.