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Pouring Oil on Mideast Fire

October 07, 2003

Israel has dangerously expanded the Mideast violence by retaliating for the latest horrific suicide attack on its people with the weekend bombing of what it termed a terrorist training site just outside Damascus. President Bush's response was half right: a condemnation of the Haifa attack that killed 19 people, including three generations of a single family. But Bush wrongly failed to admonish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government Monday, merely saying that Israel should not create more tension in the region.

Bush's continued emphasis on the global war on terrorism and the administration's loud proclamation last year of its own policy of preemption make it hard for Washington to criticize Israel for responding to murderous attacks on civilians. Sharon's government said it bombed a Syrian site operated by Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the Haifa bombing.

Bush, however, should remind Sharon that the U.S. -- Israel's greatest ally and source of foreign aid -- faces major Mideast difficulties, primarily in Iraq. Washington needs help from other nations, including Arab countries, to stop attacks on U.S. soldiers, to get Iraq's economy going and to hold elections. It has been hard enough to get international help without the complication of Israel taking military action outside the occupied Palestinian territories. Every member of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council except the U.S. condemned the Syria bombing, increasing Washington's isolation.

The Bush administration's attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is episodic. It kept its distance soon after Bush took office, an unfortunate contrast with the deep involvement of President Clinton. Bush then made a major statement on the need for a Palestinian state and later said he would appoint Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as top-level prods for peace. But after June summits in Jordan and Egypt, followed by Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel and Israeli retaliatory killings of leaders of terrorist groups, the administration again seemed disengaged and tied up by Iraq.

The "road map" to peace drawn up by the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union envisioned reciprocal actions by Palestinians and Israelis; the violence has shredded the plan.

Syria should heed Washington's warnings to end support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Damascus' only hope of getting needed economic aid and achieving security is to rid the country of terrorists and not block U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.

Israel, too, should cooperate with the U.S., understanding that not all of its actions can be condoned by invoking the specter of terrorism. Israel has the right to defend itself, but it should beware provoking other nations in the region to assert that same right and intensify the spiral of violence.

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