The Baltimore Sun

Off the map

October 4, 2004

SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell urged Palestinians last week to end their 4-year-old uprising against the Israeli occupation. "What has it accomplished?" Mr. Powell asked in an interview with an Arab television network. "Has it produced progress toward a Palestinian state?"

These are sober questions that many Palestinians have asked themselves. But the question that should be asked is: What has the Bush administration done to facilitate an end to the attacks and counterattacks between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,300 Palestinians?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an engine for rage in the Arab and Muslim world, has dropped off the national political agenda. If you need evidence, replay last Thursday's presidential debate. During 90 minutes devoted to foreign policy, it never came up. Not a question. Not a comment. Not a reference. Not a word. During the 2000 race, the issue arose in two of three debates. But they occurred days after the present uprising began and 11 months before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The latter has profoundly changed America's response to the failed Middle East peace process. The war on terrorism and, especially, the war in Iraq, which dominated Thursday's debate, have hijacked the White House. They have overwhelmed U.S. foreign policy and recast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a search for a peaceful end to the occupation to a drive to eliminate the terrorist networks striking Israel.

The waves of Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket attacks against Israel hastened that shift and led to Israel's aggressive military response. A discredited Palestinian leadership offered little to counter extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That and President Bush's single-minded focus on combating terror and overthrowing Saddam Hussein drew the administration more firmly into the camp of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Bush may support a two-state solution to this conflict, but he increasingly has let Mr. Sharon control the course of this non-peace process. He has set aside the U.S. role of honest broker as Israel expands settlements, sends tanks and bulldozers to dislodge Palestinian militants and builds a security barrier across great swaths of disputed land, isolating Palestinians in towns and villages. Israelis are safer as a result, but at what cost to their future security in a hostile region?

ut let's get back to Mr. Powell's questions. If answered candidly, Palestinians would have to concede that their society and institutions, the likelihood of independence and prospects for peace have greatly deteriorated over the past four years.

The next U.S. president cannot allow the stalemate to grind on. Islamic terrorists continue to evoke the plight of Palestinians in rallying recruits. Just last week in a tape broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's second in command, twinned attacks on Israel and the United States with the liberation of Palestine. Can it be any clearer that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in America's national interest?

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