Never Mind, Mr. Sharon

Saturday, September 14, 2002; Page A20

MOST OF THREE months has passed since President Bush laid out his vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and still there has been next to no follow-up by his administration. No Cabinet-level officials have visited the region since the president's speech; despite pleas from the Arab leaders Mr. Bush asked for support, no details have been offered on how to move from the present situation to Mr. Bush's vision of side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states. On the contrary: Despite Mr. Bush's announcement of an international effort to reconstruct Palestinian security forces, the CIA has taken only token steps to train new officers; despite the president's clarion call for Palestinian democracy, the administration has quietly joined Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in opposing the holding of Palestinian national elections anytime in the near future. In effect, what the president cast on June 24 as a major initiative for Middle East peace has all but vanished; in its place is a suddenly all-consuming campaign against Iraq that could soon lead to a new Middle East war. Vice President Cheney, among others, is arguing that overturning the regime of Saddam Hussein will make an Israeli-Palestinian settlement easier; but even if that is true, what is not clear is how a conflict that has cost more than 2,000 lives in the past two years, and is a primary source of Muslim grievance against the United States, can be contained between now and then.

In the now familiar absence of Bush administration engagement, halting progress has been made by the parties on the ground. There have been no major Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis in six weeks, despite several attempts; both the Israeli army and the Palestinian administration claim credit, and both probably had something to do with it. Attempts by Palestinian political and military leaders to change the direction of their self-destructive uprising against Israel, and to force Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to yield most of his power, continue in spite of Mr. Arafat's strong resistance; this week the legislative body of the Palestinian Authority delivered an unprecedented rebuff, forcing the resignation of Mr. Arafat's cabinet. The more moderate Labor Party ministers in Mr. Sharon's cabinet have been trying to negotiate incremental security agreements with the Palestinians, and there are signs of revival in the long-moribund Israeli peace camp.

But Israeli troops occupy six major West Bank towns and significant parts of the Gaza Strip, imposing curfews and other restrictions on movement that aid agencies say are breeding a mounting humanitarian crisis. Israeli forces killed more than a dozen innocent Palestinian civilians in the past two weeks, including several children; a hasty official investigation cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing. Israeli settlement-building in the territories continues; Mr. Sharon refuses to rein it in, just as he rejects any discussion of Palestinian statehood or any negotiations -- even with a post-Arafat leadership -- about a permanent peace. For his part, Mr. Bush clearly remains unwilling to do or say anything that would cross Mr. Sharon. That reluctance largely explains his administration's failure to act on his broad promises of last June; in the coming months, it could also prove a serious impediment to building a coalition against Iraq.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company