Escalation in the Middle East


AT LAST, the Bush administration has attempted leadership in hopes of preventing the Middle East conflict from escalating into worse terrors for civilians in Israel, Palestine and neighboring states.

Brandishing the Mitchell committee report, part of a process approved by both sides during the Clinton administration, was an obvious first step. Its call for a cessation of violence followed by confidence-building measures by both sides is compelling.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is as persuasive a spokesman for the United States as can be found. His commitment to being "engaged," implicitly repudiating previous Bush administration pining for distance, reflects the U.S. interest in regional peace.

This U.S. interest hardly needs to be explained or apologized for. It stems from more than a half-century of support for the legitimacy of Israel, world dependence on Middle East oil, the need of Arab people for peace and development, and the U.S. stake in a peaceful and orderly world.

While Mr. Powell emphasized he is proposing no peace plan and appointing no special envoy other than the assistant secretary-designate, Ambassador William Burns, these steps may be taken. The peoples of the Middle East count on Washington to save them from their own worst instincts. This is no time to rebuke the role.

Palestinian terrorism triggered this conflict. Palestinian people suffer the most from it. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat may have lost ability to turn the bloodshed off. But he must try in good faith, or be held accountable.

Israel's use of F-16 attack planes in response to suicide bombers and snipers can only turn terrorism up, not off. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ready recourse to escalation as the answer to any frustration appalls many Israelis as a sure sign of a policy vacuum. Without a plan, the escalation can lead only to more of the same.

Israel's enlargement of settlements in the West Bank is provocative and should be stopped. But not as a precondition to a Palestinian cessation of violence. For 53 years, Israel responded to hostile attacks on its existence by growing larger and stronger. There is no reason to suspect that will change. Palestinian leaders know that.

Jordan and Egypt, which recognize Israel, felt compelled to go along with Arab League grandstanding over the weekend, calling on Arab states to repudiate contact with Israel. U.S. diplomacy must keep them in play and engage them in restraining Palestinians even as Washington seeks to restrain Israel.

Secretary Powell took a step in the right direction, but only a first step. Arab-Israeli relations will not get better until, first, they stop getting worse.

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