The US-Mideast two-step

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may well remember his latest trip to Washington as a disaster.

It had been so well prepared. Advance spin from Jerusalem had him bringing a "most serious" peace plan involving the "painful concessions" he had spoken of earlier. The powerful pro-Israeli lobbies had helped get blank-check solidarity resolutions through the Congress by overwhelming majorities.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, House majority whip and a political ally of President Bush, led the effort with a rousing speech. Prime Minister Sharon came with a satchel full of documents, intending to prove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's full complicity in the suicide bombings and therefore his irrelevancy to the peace process.

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Mr. Bush should have been mightily impressed. Apparently, he wasn't. He brushed off the documents and, as for Mr. Arafat's relevance, affirmed his stand that neither the United States nor anyone else – only the Palestinian people – could choose their leaders.

With Mr. Sharon beside him in the Oval Office, the president spoke to reporters about building a Palestinian state with a better, unified security force and other institutions, a constitution, and a framework for economic development to bring security and hope to the Palestinians. He urged Sharon to open closed areas of the West Bank as soon as possible to let the people get back to work. Sharon called discussion of a state premature.

The president spoke of dismantling Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. As symbols of colonization, they are one of the most sensitive points in the whole drama. Sharon dismissed this also as premature. The prime minister sought to discredit Saudi Arabia as a neutral partner in the pursuit of peace. Bush reportedly stressed what he called the promise lying in the deeper involvement of the Arab states. Those who were waiting for Sharon's most serious peace plan waited in vain.

The suicide attack near Tel Aviv that cut short the prime minister's visit was another bitter blow, in more ways than one. For months, Sharon had hurled tanks, planes, and bombs and artillery against what he labeled the Palestinian terrorists' infrastructure.

The offensive was meant to provide security for Israelis. Manifestly, it did not. What it really did was smash what there was of Palestinian civil society and bring blame on Israel. In addition, it showed Israelis and others that the prime minister really had no peace plan, but only the delusion that military action could solve the problem of fitting Israel into the Levantine community.

This was not exactly a revelation. Israel's only other war of choice, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, was also Sharon's idea when he was serving as Isreal's defense minister. In the name of security, it was to install a government under Israeli influence and economically under Israel's thumb. The campaign was a costly fiasco. I interviewed Sharon somewhat earlier, when he was Mr. Begin's minister of agriculture, charged with expansion of Israeli settlements. Asked whether this was not promoting ill will toward Israel, he replied emphatically that it had to be done for security.

Given Sharon's disposition to meet political challenge with force, as well as the feeble and ambivalent record of Arafat and his cronies, the prospect of peace is dim indeed. The bloody stalemate calls for fresh ideas and material help from outside.

Vice President Dick Cheney learned in the Arab states earlier this year that only America could meet the need. Israel, in its anxiety, will trust no one else to protect its existential interests. The many other nations directly or indirectly involved would not accept leadership from anyone but the US.

President Bush, until Sept. 11 determined to stay out of the Middle East, has seen that this is impossible. He recently arranged to have Arafat freed from Israeli confinement in Ramallah by having six Palestinians wanted by Israel moved to a Palestinian prison in Jericho under the guard of American and British wardens.

Washington avers that this is no precedent for intervention. How can it be sure? CIA Director George Tenet is being sent back to the region to help design the construction of a Palestinian security force. Former Presidents Carter and Clinton say that American troops must be part of an international force to stabilize a peace agreement.

The US presence would hearten Israel's peace camp, which has lost its voice in the past furious months. It would encourage all on the Arab side to feel that chaos is not inevitable.

The US should not and cannot shoulder this responsibility alone. Help will come when Washington shows serious commitment in active participation over time, as experience in postwar Europe, Afghanistan, and the Balkans has shown. Exit strategy? Automatic, upon success.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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