Stop ethnic cleansing in the Mideast before it starts

"No deportations of Palestinians!" "Get back to the negotiating table!" Should these things even need saying to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he visits Washington Oct. 16? One would think not. But given President Bush's long record of negligence in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, they probably need restating to Mr. Sharon very loudly – and by the president – right now.

Most of the attention regarding how Israel might behave in the event of an American war against Iraq has thus far focused on whether Sharon's government would launch a military response against Iraq if Iraq should start aiming at Israel during the war. But there's another possibility, even more feared by members of the peace camps in Israel and Palestine. That's the prospect that – with or without receiving a prior hit from Iraq – Sharon might use the cover of a "big war" in the region to undertake new and serious escalations in his campaign against the Palestinians.

Forced deportation of Palestinians from the occupied territories – "transfer," as it is widely described inside Israeli society – is the most horrifying possibility being discussed. It is also the option that, unless vigorously and consistently opposed by Washington, would do the most harm to America's broader interests in the Middle East – and that includes America's ability to bring the campaign against Saddam Hussein to a successful conclusion.

How real is the prospect of an Israeli attempt at transfer – or ethnic cleansing, as this same policy is called in the rest of international discourse? Well, Israel's recently appointed minister of infrastructure is a retired general called Effi Eitam, who made his political career precisely by advocating transfer. And earlier this month, Education Minister Limor Livnat directed schools throughout the country to devote an hour of study to the teachings of former Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. Mr. Zeevi was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman a year ago. But the idea he was most closely associated with during a long political career was transfer.

The idea of transfer is dressed up in a number of guises by various right-wing Israelis. Sometimes they suggest that Palestinians can be persuaded to emigrate "voluntarily" from the occupied territories. Many in Israel's peace camp say that the tight squeeze the Sharon government has imposed on the Palestinian areas since last March is designed to push Palestinians toward this "choice." If that is the case, it is an immoral and unconscionable use of state power. So would be any attempt at forced deportations.

When Mr. Bush meets Sharon, he should express the total opposition of all Americans to any Israeli attempt at ethnic cleansing. But more is needed. Whether there's a war against Iraq on the horizon or not, the president needs to tell Sharon that the violence in the Holy Land has gone on far too long, and that Washington will now take active steps to help the two traumatized parties escape from it.

Ever since he came into office, Bush has been damagingly passive in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The situation on the ground has become far worse since January 2001. Palestinian and Israeli civilians have continued to die in totally unacceptable numbers. Last June, Bush made one major speech on the issue – but then, he immediately returned to his earlier passivity. Even during a six-week lull in Israeli casualties from August through early September, Bush did nothing to press Sharon to hotfoot it back to the negotiating table.

How do the Israeli trend toward escalation and Washington's apparent passivity toward it serve America's broader interests throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world? Clearly, they don't. Whether the president wants to build a strong coalition against Saddam Hussein, or to maintain the cooperation that's still needed in the fight against Al Qaeda, the perception and reality of American permissiveness toward Sharon's actions are certainly harmful to American interests.

That needs to end. The US is deeply implicated in everything Israel's government does. At least $3 billion of our tax money has gone to Israel each year since the mid-1980s. Washington gives the Sharon government massive military and diplomatic support. But that support cannot be unconditional, so long as Sharon and his government pursue policies that are clearly escalatory.

Constructive American reengagement with Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking is simply the right thing to do. Leaders in Israel's reemerging peace camp call for a lot more than just renewed diplomacy. They want Washington to lead a new interposition force, stationed in the occupied territories, that can help Israelis and Palestinians to disengage, while providing protection that the much-beleaguered Palestinian communities urgently need.

Bush is likely wary of any such plan. But he certainly needs to act now to reposition America as an engaged and credible peacemaker in the Holy Land.

And if he's not willing to do that? Then he should hand Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking back to the United Nations, and promise the UN our country's full cooperation as it works where he chooses not to: for a speedy resolution of this tragic but still escapable cycle of violence.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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