Dual assaults occupy Israel


Israel's prime minister equates the kidnapping of two more of its soldiers to an "an act of war." The Islamic leader of the Lebanese kidnappers warns that if Israel "wants to escalate the confrontation, we are ready for it." An Israeli military commander counters with an ominous threat to "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years" if the soldiers are not returned.

And all the United States can muster in this escalating crisis is a call for restraint and a peaceful resolution. It was a pitiful response that underscores the Bush administration's indifference to the violence ensnaring Israeli forces, Hamas-led Palestinian militants and now the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Pat diplomacy from the U.S. wasn't acceptable when Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli corporal three weeks ago outside the Gaza Strip. And it shouldn't be now.

In an effort to rescue its soldier from Gaza and end rocket attacks in its southern region, Israel launched punishing airstrikes and targeted assassinations. Its tanks entered Gaza for the first time since they withdrew from the Gaza Strip last summer. Palestinian towns have been battered and lives lost. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to negotiate with the kidnappers for a prisoner exchange on the theory that such talks reward hostage-takers, but that calculation didn't keep Hezbollah guerrillas from sneaking into Israel at its northern border Wednesday, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two others.

The potential for a deeper, broader conflict - and more casualties - has increased with the Hezbollah assault, a calculated move timed to bolster Palestinian militants in Gaza and increase the pressure on Israel to accede to their demands. The dual assault has scuttled any hope of Egyptian mediators winning the release of the Israeli corporal and has prompted Israeli retaliatory attacks in southern Lebanon for the first time since its May 2000 pullout. But the more unsettling prospect is a conjoining of Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists who will increase mayhem on Israel's borders.

If the United States truly cares about protecting innocents and civilian infrastructure, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contended recently, it no longer can remain on the sidelines in this conflict. It should take the lead and promote the appointment of an international envoy who would negotiate a cease-fire and return of the kidnapped soldiers. Lebanese officials, no longer dominated by Syria, should show their independence and work for a peaceful resolution, not in support of Hezbollah's brazen actions.

Every day that the Israeli soldiers remain captive is another day for Israeli strikes against Palestinian and Lebanese targets. The more entrenched the violence becomes, the greater the risk of a regional intifada.

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