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Wrong approach to Middle East


WASHINGTON -- Addressing the U.N. Security Council last week after the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants, U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said: "The United States is of the firm view that a prerequisite for ending this conflict is that the governments of Syria and Iran end their role as state sponsors of terror and unequivocally condemn the actions of Hamas, including this kidnapping."

Mr. Bolton's "prerequisite" offers a justification for the Bush administration to sit on its hands and delay indefinitely any resumption of America's once-powerful role in Middle East peacemaking.

Right now, Washington is not in a position to make Iran or Syria do much of anything. The regime in Tehran has deftly managed to stall U.S. and European efforts to halt its nuclear program. Iran also retains its capacity to foment trouble for the United States in Iraq. Syria, meanwhile, has regained some of its regional footing after a humiliating retreat from Lebanon last year and the suspected role by Damascus in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

For both Tehran and Damascus, support for Palestinian militants and for the Lebanese group Hezbollah provides a cost-effective way to keep pressure on Israel and extort potential concessions from the West.

The election of a Hamas-led Palestinian government, the subsequent U.S.-led financial squeeze and the violent chaos in Gaza all serve to increase Iran and Syria's influence with Palestinian militants.

An ominous sign was the June 25 Palestinian military operation that killed two Israeli soldiers and resulted in Cpl. Gilad Shalit's capture. The sophistication and careful planning evident in the construction of a tunnel and attack on an Israeli army position suggest the attack was inspired by the tactics of Hezbollah, even if there was no direct outside involvement.

Like Hezbollah in its war against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, the Palestinian militants who planned the attack apparently know where Israel is most vulnerable emotionally. Israelis have endured suicide attacks on civilians with courage and resilience, but they are torn apart by having a 19-year-old soldier held hostage. His plight is a reminder of the anxiety shared by many Israeli parents of teenage conscripts.

But if Iran and Syria have increased their influence, Mr. Bolton has the situation backward if he thinks they hold the key to ending the conflict.

Such an argument overlooks the essentially homegrown nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and implies that if Iran and Syria weren't pulling the strings from afar, Palestinian terrorists would go out of business. Not so. Palestinian fighters are not a high-priced army reliant on outside sponsorship. Mostly, they use AK-47s, locally manufactured explosive vests and crude rockets.

Waiting for a change in behavior in Iran and Syria could doom Israel and the Palestinians to a new and dangerous escalation, with ripple effects likely to be felt throughout an unstable region. Further, it removes the United States from any meaningful role.

In a telling sign of how Washington's leverage in the region has declined, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Moscow this week pressing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for help in freeing Corporal Shalit.

The Bush administration needs to tackle this problem at its homegrown core: by making its first sustained effort at promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and assuming a central U.S. role. It should begin by grasping several newly available levers to resurrect the lifeless international "road map" toward peace:

The current crisis has focused new global attention on the conflict, drawing in not only Russia but also Egypt, Turkey and the Europeans. Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to appreciate this outside help and be willing to listen and respond to entreaties from foreign leaders.

Chaos in Gaza will likely weaken Israeli popular support for any more unilateral Israeli withdrawals from occupied territory, forcing Mr. Olmert to enlist international and Palestinian cooperation in fulfilling his top priority of settling Israel's borders.

The latest version of the Palestinian "prisoners' document" attempting to craft a unified political platform explicitly gives Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas authority to conduct negotiations with Israel.

There are signs of division within the Hamas leadership and disenchantment with its politburo in Damascus. The initial U.S. aim ought to be a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, one that both Mr. Abbas and the elected Hamas government - if it survives - would have to enforce.

A halt to the violence should take priority over a demand for Hamas' recognition of Israel - a symbolic gesture that would have little credibility anyway.

An active U.S.-led peace effort would restore a measure of hope to Israelis and Palestinians while invigorating U.S. allies in the Middle East and beyond. This is the only way to undercut the terror sponsors in Iran and Syria.

Mark Matthews, a former diplomatic and Middle East correspondent for The Sun, is at work on a book about the United States and Israel. His e-mail is mmath2112@aol.com.

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