We Can’t Stand By While Mideast Burns
     by Joe Conason

As these words are written, Ariel Sharon is literally destroying the Palestinian Authority and appears determined to expel, imprison or possibly even kill its chairman, Yasir Arafat. The Israeli prime minister insists that his army’s incursion into the territories is a temporary measure, intended only to uproot the "infrastructure of terrorism." After that is achieved at some undetermined date, according to Mr. Sharon and members of his cabinet, the government of Israel will again be prepared to discuss a political solution.

It is as difficult to take such assertions seriously as it is to believe that Mr. Arafat opposes the murder of Jewish civilians and desires a negotiated peace. What, in Mr. Sharon’s mind, will constitute "victory" in this return to the old policies of occupation and pacification? When the Palestinian Authority lies in bloody ruins and its leader is either dead or exiled, with whom does Mr. Sharon expect to discuss the future? How does Mr. Sharon plan to revive the peace process if he refuses to acknowledge the Palestinian leadership and the national aspirations recognized by his predecessors? Why has he so casually dismissed the Saudi initiative at the Arab summit in Beirut?

These are the questions being asked today in Israel—where universal and justifiable fury over the attacks sanctioned by Mr. Arafat is giving way to the realization that Mr. Sharon’s military response includes no "exit strategy." Unlike certain Americans who cheer him on, those Israelis understand that Mr. Sharon cannot successfully pacify the Palestinian territories, and that attempting to do so will result in more horrifying violence between Arabs and Jews. Inflicting still more misery on the West Bank will not "uproot and eradicate terror," as Mr. Sharon says he means to do, but create the conditions for more.

Knowing Mr. Sharon, his Israeli critics also suspect that he remains as unwilling as ever to contemplate the sacrifices necessary to achieve agreement with his nation’s neighbors. He wants to expand the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories rather than withdraw them; he won’t accept the legitimacy of a Palestinian state led by Mr. Arafat. For him, the crimes of the suicide bombers represent a rationale to pursue the same hopeless policies he has always preferred.

Yet if Mr. Sharon’s approach has been dangerous and deplorable, it is probably the inevitable result of the Palestinian Authority’s inability (or unwillingness) to lead its own people toward compromise. By refusing to seize the opportunity
offered by the government of Ehud Barak, and by failing to suppress the rejectionist murderers of Hamas and Hezbollah,
Mr. Arafat not only brought his worst enemy to power but instigated an atmosphere of despair in Israel. He has given
the Israeli public no reason to regard him as trustworthy, and hundreds of reasons to think him treacherous.

In short, these antagonists are behaving no differently than any experienced observer would have predicted—and the United States cannot be blamed for that. But the Bush administration’s decision to abstain from diplomacy in the Middle East—and even to mock former President Clinton’s strenuous engagement—was a disastrous mistake, with consequences yet to be fully revealed. The "tough-minded" foreign-policy veterans surrounding George W. Bush ought to have known better than to abandon Mr. Clinton’s unfinished business, no matter what they might feel about him or his policies.

Just as disturbing as the limp policy posture of the White House are the hints that Mr. Bush is guided by domestic political considerations on this crucial issue. He is said to believe that his father’s Mideast diplomacy, which helped to bring about the Oslo accords, led to Republican defeat in 1992. How he might have reached such a conclusion is mysterious, since the dominant issues in that election were economic; foreign policy—the singular preoccupation of the first Bush Presidency—was scarcely mentioned. Jewish voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate, in an ethnic tradition that has remained virtually unchanged for decades.

Perhaps Mr. Bush is worried about the reaction of the religious right, his most faithful base of support, if he puts any real pressure on Israel. Far more than American Jews, whose support of the Jewish state has been influenced in recent years by Israel’s internal debate, it is the Christian fundamentalists who have become the most intransigent advocates of Zionism. If he is listening to these people, the President should keep in mind that they look forward happily to Armageddon.

Those of us who hope to preserve this world would be better served by renewed engagement and resolve on the part of American diplomats, whose duty is to rescue the Israelis from the excesses of their own government, and to prevent the catastrophe of a wider war. The only path back from the brink is for the United States and its allies in Europe to induce a cease-fire that can eventually lead to more talking and less killing.

You may reach Joe Conason via email at: jconason@observer.com.

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