Mideast Prospects: More Miserable by the Minute

Israel's battle-hardened Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, campaigned for the Feb. 6 election on the curious slogan "Only Sharon can make peace." Four weeks into his term, however--to few people's surprise--there is little sign he can deliver on that promise. If anything, fighting between the Palestinians and Israelis is escalating, despite tougher Israeli tactics. The past few days have seen some ominous developments: bombings in Israel, tit-for-tat killings, and Israeli helicopter attacks on Palestinian targets.

In fact, most observers now think the Middle East faces a long period of deadlock, even though senior Israelis and Palestinians have started to talk again. "The conflict is likely to continue for many more months," Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz said recently.

Managing this bleak new era will be tricky for the new Administration in Washington. President Bush wants to reduce the time the U.S. spends in playing referee between Israel and the Palestinians. He wants the two sides to tire each other out before the U.S. gets involved in a big way again. That's not such a dumb idea, but he must be careful that in the meantime the Israeli-Palestinian violence doesn't poison the wider region, where the U.S. has extensive interests.

DULL ROAR. The main objective for the U.S. at this point should be to keep the level of fighting as low as possible. The Israelis and Palestinians may not be ready for peace, but that does not mean the U.S. should let them engage in all-out war. In this regard, some of Bush's recent comments are open to second-guessing. The hard line he took toward the Palestinians during Sharon's recent Washington visit may well have been interpreted by the Israelis as a green light to step up their operations. Moreover, he should be wary of throwing away the considerable rapport the U.S. has established with Yassir Arafat--no matter how devious Bush may find the Palestine National Authority chief.

Leeriness about U.S. and Israeli conduct is already encouraging friendly Arab states to make side bets. Egypt, for instance, is moving closer to Iraq, even while recalling its ambassador from Israel. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah is cozying up to Iran, which is one reason he spurned Bush's recent request not to cut oil production. Of course, over the long run, the return of normal relations between Iraq, Iran, and the other regional powers would be healthy. At this moment, however, it is a sign of reduced U.S. clout that the rapprochement is occurring without Washington's blessing.

The worst fallout of the violent stalemate in Israel would be a new regional conflict. The likeliest flash point is Lebanon, where provocations by Hezbollah guerrillas, who are linked to Syria, could give Israel the pretext to pound Syrian positions and teach Syria's inexperienced President Bashar al-Assad a lesson. The Israelis think that the U.S. has given up on Bashar as a peacemaker--a perception that could embolden them to defang the Syrian military and show their neighbors that Israel's forces have lost none of their bite.

An Israeli-Syrian clash would make life extremely uncomfortable for the countries in the region that rely on U.S. arms and aid. That's one reason both Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah have been urging the U.S. to remain active in its role as mediator. Both know that an all-out drive for Israeli-Palestinian peace probably isn't in the cards right now. But that doesn't mean the U.S. should stand by and let the fighting rage out of control.

By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Susan Postlewaite in Cairo

Edited by Rose Brady

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