Bush Defied, Peace Delayed

DEFYING an American president seems to be the game in the Middle East these days – especially by Israel and Iraq – only it's not much of a game with two wars being waged and a third one being contemplated.

Once an ally in the US war on terrorism, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has turned on President Bush by refusing to withdraw troops from West Bank cities. Israel's war on the Palestinian "terrorist infrastructure" – which could merely consist of girls with a few pounds of explosives – will bring only a temporary respite for Israelis while hindering the larger US war on terrorism.

Most Israelis know long-term peace lies in winning over a majority of Palestinians by granting statehood and not waging street battles among civilians. The urge to destroy the Palestinian government and turn cities into caged ghettos may seem a necessary response to suicide bombings. But how does it advance Israel's own goal of a Palestinian state?

Mr. Sharon's defiance has brought Mr. Bush's credibility as a statesman down a notch. But the president also faces possible failure in Secretary of State Colin Powell's current mission to persuade a few Arab leaders to denounce the suicide bombings. Twice in the past two weeks, Arab leaders have met and rejected that idea.

No wonder, then, that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein felt emboldened this week to fire his oil weapon, vowing not to export 1.5 billion to 2 billion barrels per day for a month.

His action may be little more than a flash in the pan – at least in economic terms. The absence of Iraq's oil won't have much impact on the industrial West. There's ample excess capacity among Iraq's OPEC brethren, most of whom were not happy with Mr. Hussein's move.

But Iraq's oil gambit was political. Hussein can burnish his image in the Arab world by claiming a supreme sacrifice to show solidarity with the besieged Palestinians.

Actually, the sacrifice is minimal. Though Iraq's sales have been dictated by UN rules since the Gulf War, it has enough oil revenue to cover its needs for at least a month.

To the degree that his popularity grows among Arabs, Hussein's tactic will make it that much harder for the United States to rally regional support for toppling the Iraqi leader, either by war or by something called a "regime change."

Pushing oil toward the forefront of the current Mideast crisis could have other effects as well. For some critics of Washington, it will confirm that all US policy in the region revolves around access to crude. After all, none other than Uncle Sam buys more than half of Iraq's production.

The best way, certainly, to push Hussein back to the margins where he belongs is for the US to forge ahead with its efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire tied to the resumption of talks on a peace arrangement.

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