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Washington's Burden ...

April 02, 2002

President Bush took office a year ago determined that his administration not resemble Bill Clinton's either in style (more suits, less denim) or substance (hands off the Middle East). Now reality intervenes. Now "hands off" by the only outside power able to mediate the Mideast crisis looks like myopic timidity. Now, belatedly, the administration needs to dive in and separate the Israelis and Palestinians--and with fear and rage pounding through both combatants' veins, it's going to take a higher-ranking referee than Anthony C. Zinni to make that happen.

Washington dispatched Zinni to Israel twice in recent months to try for a cease-fire but called him home when the violence worsened. Then Vice President Dick Cheney gave diplomacy a try. But Cheney's mission to Arab countries and Israel was more about clearing a path for future action against Iraq than about Middle East peace for its own sake.

We hope that the ghastly conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has finally made Bush realize that the crisis merits his administration's focused attention regardless of what happens with Iraq. We hope he also sees the futility of the current process, wherein Zinni, back for a third time, is trying to get both sides to agree to a cease-fire while putting off a return to the underlying political debate.

It's time to send in Secretary of State Colin L. Powell with a plan recognizing that military and political talks can and must go on at the same time. But even Powell won't be effective until Bush articulates a clear and consistent position. On Saturday the United States joined in the 14-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council that demanded "the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah," headquarters of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. But when Bush faced TV cameras that day he repeated the mantra that Arafat could do more--with no mention of an Israeli withdrawal.

Though new U.S. presidents may wish it so, there's no way for this nation to extricate itself from the Middle East. Even before Henry A. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, secretaries of State realized that the volatile region was vitally important to American interests. Cyrus Vance, George Shultz, James Baker and Warren Christopher came to know Israel and the surrounding countries well. Washington administrations did not always get along with the Israeli government in power. But each, while wary of the seemingly eternal quagmire's complexity, also recognized the high stakes and the need to be an honest broker.

President Clinton plunged in personally and came close to bringing Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to an accord. Yes, Arafat burned Clinton at the last minute by rejecting a reasonable plan. But surely Bush understands that geopolitics is a brutal game; leaders have to play with whoever's on the field, and at the moment that means Arafat.

Powell and Bush both have spoken about the ultimate objective of political negotiations: the state of Israel and a Palestinian state, both behind secure and defensible borders. Getting there will be tortuous. But what's happening now is increasingly tragic. Until the world's sole remaining superpower assertively intervenes, the already ugly fight will continue escalating toward something even more gruesome.

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