While the Mideast Burns:

"I have to drop some papers off at Zion Square," my wife told a fellow staffer at her office, a news bureau near downtown Jerusalem. "I'll be back in five." Her colleague pointed to one of the flak jackets that correspondents wear for covering battles. "Here," he said, "take this."

It was dark newsroom humor. Jerusalemites don't wear flak jackets to visit Zion Square at the city center. After the latest downtown bombings, they just don't go there. The day Colin Powell took off for the Mideast, anxious Israeli parents delivered their kids to school at the end of a Passover vacation during which children were mostly kept indoors. A national educational strike called by the Parents' Association was canceled once the government agreed to provide security guards for all schools. For the moment, that seemed enough. A brittle, counterfeit calm had settled in our streets. The bleeding had moved to Jenin and Nablus, where Israeli troops battled Palestinians.

It takes effort to remember that on March 28, the Arab summit in Beirut adopted the Saudi peace initiative. The Arab leaders called for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967
borders and establishment of a Palestinian state -- and offered in return, for the first time
ever, collective recognition of and peaceful relations with the Jewish state. It could have
been a diplomatic turning point.

Instead, open war erased the opening to peace. For that, three factors are responsible: Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, an Israeli offensive aimed not only at stopping terror but at shattering Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and an American diplomatic stance that can be described, at the most forgiving, as ineffectual. The result: When Powell arrived in the region, he found a political constellation far more extreme than he would have faced if the Bush administration had begun high-profile diplomatic efforts
even two weeks earlier.

For the Hamas terrorists who carried out the Passover Seder night attack on a Netanyah hotel, killing at least 27 Israelis, the motivation is brutal but obvious: They seek victory by "armed struggle," and presumably regard the Saudi initiative as another Arab sellout of Palestinians. While it's doubtful Arafat knew specifically of plans for the Netanyah attack, he has allowed the terror campaign to continue.

For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who wants continued Israeli rule over most of the West Bank, the Saudi initiative was also a threat. He initially sought to vitiate it by preventing Arafat from traveling to Beirut for the summit. The Netanyah atrocity provided him the opportunity to go further and launch a full-scale incursion of the West Bank he'd long planned.

Sharon's goals went beyond killing or capturing terrorists and rounding up their weapons. The offensive was aimed at the remains of the already-crippled Palestinian Authority, and especially at its multiple security agencies -- effectively, the regime's military and police. That included besieging and destroying the West Bank Preventative Security headquarters outside Ramallah. The agency's head, Jibril Rajub, is regarded in Israel as a key moderate in the Palestinian Authority's top echelon. What's more, he was holding Hamas activists as prisoners. Though he was not at headquarters when it fell, its destruction leaves him powerless -- and the surrender of his besieged men, along with their prisoners, undermined his public legitimacy. While demanding a cease-fire, Sharon has eliminated anyone on the Palestinian side who might enforce it. The point, presumably, is that Israel will have to fill the vacuum.

Sharon's plans originally included exiling Arafat, a move the prime minister's Labor Party coalition partners opposed. Instead, troops virtually imprisoned Arafat in his Ramallah office. Yet while the campaign has shattered Arafat's regime, it has renewed his status as Palestinian national icon. And in the West Bank's towns and refugee camps, the Israeli invasion has deepened anger and bitterness -- the fuel of new terror.

The terrorist attacks and the offensive, meanwhile, gave Sharon the standard wartime boost in domestic popularity. It also allowed him to draw more right-wing politicians into his governing coalition -- reducing the influence of the centrist Labor Party. Among the new ministers: Effie Eitam, a recently retired army officer and a far-right firebrand who urges Israeli annexation of the West Bank with permanent non-citizen status for Palestinians, and who has called the existence of Islamic shrines on Jerusalem's Temple Mount "a flaw in the state of the world."

The third side of the triangle is the Bush administration, which until now basically stood by while the Mideast burned. While the motives and interests of hard-line Israelis and Palestinians seem clear, Washington's willingness to watch the escalation for as long as it did remains inexplicable. Diplomacy could still help, of course, but it will be far more difficult in an arena where a flak jacket has become more appropriate business dress than a suit.

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