Mideast awaits leadership

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

If the purpose of this week's Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel was to provoke a harsh response, it succeeded. Israel briefly sent troops, tanks and bulldozers into an area of the Gaza Strip controlled by the Palestinian Authority, destroying a number of police stations and uprooting orchards that might have provided cover for the Palestinian attack. The raid brought a rare rebuke from the United States, with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell describing it as "excessive and disproportionate." The Clinton administration had taken pains to avoid judging any Israeli or Palestinian actions, for fear of upsetting the fragile peace process. The Bush administration has not unreasonably concluded that the process has no vital signs left; since taking office in January it has several times sharply criticized both Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The peace process became comatose last summer when Arafat could not find the courage to accept an Israeli proposal that would have assured Palestinian statehood and sovereignty over at least 92 percent of the West Bank. The explosion of Palestinian violence and terrorism that soon followed toppled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and made the aggressive Ariel Sharon head of a new coalition government. Sharon promised to bring Israelis security and peace, a pledge not unlike the one he made as defense minister in 1981 when he maneuvered Israel into its disastrous invasion of Lebanon.

The six weeks since he took office have shown there is no new Sharon; there is instead the familiar hard-liner who is convinced that Israel's 1948 war of independence "has not ended" but was only a chapter in an ongoing conflict. In interviews with Israeli papers last weekend, Sharon said Israel will hold on to Syria's Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war, keep control of the Jordan Valley and retain all of its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No more than 42% of the West Bank will be transferred to the Palestinians, and on Jerusalem no compromises will be considered. In short, Sharon can offer nothing better than the status quo, all but guaranteeing that the cycle of violence and retaliation that brings neither side security or political gain will continue.

After nearly 34 years under Israeli occupation Palestinians remain stuck with a leader who fears to tell them that any chance to achieve peace, nationhood and better lives depends on making political compromises with Israel. Israelis on their part have elected a prime minister who looks backward rather than ahead, bizarrely equating Israel's struggle for survival against invading Arab armies more than half a century ago with the low-level violence it faces today and whose approach to diplomacy lacks any sense of nuance or subtlety.

At some point, new leaders will appear on both sides ready to revive a collapsed peace process that, so participating U.S. officials believe, came remarkably close last year to succeeding. Meanwhile, American diplomats in the Middle East are working hard on all parties not to let things spin out of control. It's a holding action, albeit a vital one, since containment seems the best that can be hoped for right now.

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