Commentary: The Mideast: Why Bush Must Keep Up the Pressure

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's criticism of Israel's Apr. 17 mini-invasion of Gaza shows the Bush Administration is finally realizing that it can't continue to ignore the worsening situation in the Middle East. While criticizing all combatants, Powell described the Israeli move as "disproportionate and excessive" and warned of the risks of "broader conflict."

The Israelis quickly pulled back. But what may be more important is that the Administration is being drawn into mediating the conflict, after previously trying to remain aloof. That new tack gives some hope that what was beginning to seem like a spiral into chaos can be checked. Only the U.S. has the clout with both the Israelis and Palestinians to persuade each side to stop pursuing a disastrous course.

But it is still far from clear how much prestige the Administration is willing to put on the line or even whether it has a strategy for the region. To have a significant impact, Washington is going to have to do more than issue the occasional scolding: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat will quickly figure out whether Bush is serious.

JORDANIAN PROPOSAL. Indeed, Israeli tanks and bulldozers returned to Gaza on Apr. 18 to flatten a Palestinian police post. The best hope for turning the perilous tide is for the U.S. to throw its weight behind a formula to cool down the violence and restart talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

Jordan's Foreign Minister, Abdul Illah Khatib, went to Israel with one such proposal on Apr. 16. His ideas, backed by the Egyptians, call for new peace talks accompanied by a pullback of Israeli forces to where they were when the violence flared in September. The Israelis would freeze settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians would halt their uprising. Sharon brushed off the Jordanian proposals because they didn't meet his axiom that there will be no deals or talks unless there is a prior halt to violence. But if the Bush Administration keeps up the pressure on both sides, the Israeli leader may be forced to reconsider.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Sharon is emerging as a threat to wider U.S. interests in the region. During his campaign, Sharon pledged to ease Israel's more than three decades-old occupation of the Palestinian areas. But since taking office, he has shown no interest in rolling back the occupation and has tried in vain to quell the violence with increasingly harsh military responses.

Of course, the Palestinians have been responsible for many provocations, and Sharon did run on promises to restore security as well as bring peace. But Israel will only be secure if it reaches accommodation with its neighbors. It is hard to see how Sharon's approach will advance that goal. Instead, he threatens to trash eight years of Washington-sponsored peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli-Palestinian fighting is also making life very uncomfortable for the U.S.-supported regimes in Egypt and, especially, Jordan. The U.S. has spent almost three decades and tens of billions of dollars brokering and supporting peace agreements between Israel and these two neighbors. It can't be in American or Israeli interests to jeopardize all these arrangements.

Perhaps Sharon's most worrying move was his order to Israeli jets to bomb a Syrian position in Lebanon on Apr. 16. The air strike was in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli soldier in the border area by Syrian-linked Hezbollah guerrillas. But the raid raised the specter of a wider conflagration. "What we are seeing is a person at the helm of Israel who has the potential of responding to challenges in a way that could bring a totally unwanted and unnecessary war," says Henry Siegman, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Few, if any, Arab countries want war. In fact, the Jordanian foreign minister went ahead with his peace mission to Israel even though the Israelis attacked the Syrians earlier in the day. But one wonders how long such good sense will prevail if American support is wanting.

By Stanley Reed

With Neal Sandler in Jerusalem

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