Posted on Fri, May. 10, 2002
Editorial | U.S., get serious
Mixed signals and obscure plans don't help end Mideast violence.

History has shown that baby steps do not lead to peace in the Middle East. They get blown away too easily by those who don't want to reach the right destination: coexisting Israeli and Palestinian states.

The terrorist organization Hamas, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing this week that killed 15 Israelis, is such a saboteur of peace.

Two truisms emerge from this latest round of ruin. Strategies based on incremental confidence-building measures need to be replaced by an endgame proposal to ensure Palestinians a homeland and Israelis a secure, Jewish state. The United States must lead the sides toward that endgame, unambiguously and vigorously.

So far, President Bush's Middle East efforts have been mired in divisions within his administration that have produced hapless diplomacy.

Mr. Bush's hawkish advisers believe he should back Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's military attacks against the terrorist infrastructure. Secretary of State Colin Powell is pushing negotiations.

Mr. Bush only makes the confusion worse. One minute he urges Mr. Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank. The next, he says he won't tell his "friend the prime minister what to do or how to handle his business."

Mr. Bush was right to step into the Middle East conflict. Not only does the situation hold Israelis and Palestinians hostage to bloody instability, it is an unavoidable obstacle to the U.S. war on terrorism.

But the President needs to provide a clearer timetable for achieving a Palestinian state willing to live next to a secure, safe Israel. America has to intervene, because neither Yasir Arafat nor Mr. Sharon can look beyond distrust and hatred. An American plan, however, will have zero chance unless it shows the Israeli and Palestinian publics a plausible path back to hope.

The plan will require new ways of pressuring Mr. Arafat, whose long record of lies and double-dealing has made him such an unreliable partner. The need to rebuild and finance a Palestinian government and security force shattered by the Israeli military incursion gives the United States and Europe an opening: They could tie aid to insistence on a more tightly controlled Palestinian security operation that fights, not abets, terrorism.

Such Western pressure won't work, nor will moderate Arab leaders join the squeeze-Arafat movement, unless Palestinians believe they can get a workable state through negotiations. America must strongly urge Mr. Sharon to return to serious talks.

In the meantime, the administration should press the Israeli leader to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. This is a destructive policy; it convinces Palestinians that Israel has no intention of leaving.

An American plan must focus on Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty. It must insist on the hard truth that neither goal can be achieved in any stable way without the other. Anything less dooms both sides to an endless cycle of violence.