Lessons From Mombasa

President Bush faces a tough call if Al Qaeda is linked to last Thursday's twin terrorist attacks on Israelis - outside of Israel - in the Kenyan city of Mombasa.

Up to now, Mr. Bush has made crucial distinctions between the American campaign against the Al Qaeda network and Israel's war against suicide bombers in the occupied lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel must eventually make peace with the Palestinians and remove its settlements. But the US will never make peace with Al Qaeda.

The first is basically a local conflict over territory; the second is a global conflict between Western civilization and a radical interpretation of Islam by fanatics hiding out where they can.

But the Mombasa attacks, in which three Israelis died in a suicide bombing and an Israeli airliner was nearly shot down by a shoulder-fired missile, could easily have been by a group tied to Al Qaeda. That would tie the US and Israel "wars" in many ways and also further internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That may be exactly what Osama bin Laden wants. In the past, his primary focus was to oust US troops from Saudi Arabia (where they serve to ward off an Iraqi strike) and unite all Muslims against the West. But in recent statements attributed to him, Mr. bin Laden has tried to rally more Muslims by citing the Palestinian situation and blaming America for it. That could simply signal his weakness after the arrests of many of his top people and the loss of Afghanistan as a base. He may be desperate for support and now needs spectacular strikes against Israel.

Israel has tried to persuade the US that its conflict is just a subset of the campaign on Al Qaeda. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to get rid of Yasser Arafat, just as the US dispatched the Taliban. But Bush says no. Mr. Sharon wanted to keep troops in the West Bank, but Bush said no (and then relented). Sharon wants to attack Iraq if it attacks Israel, but Bush says, please, no.

The US needs to contain and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the campaign against Al Qaeda. In June, Bush laid out a "road map" to solve the conflict by 2005. On Dec. 20, he hopes most of that plan will be endorsed by Europe, Russia, and the UN, leading to peace talks that can once again raise hope of a Palestinian state. Without such hope, bin Laden can more easily rally more Muslims to his cause.

Bush needs to keep enough diplomatic space between the US and Israel and not blur important distinctions. If Al Qaeda was behind the Mombasa attack, then Bush must decide how it should influence Israel's response.

If Israel fully joins the international war on Al Qaeda, it can hardly reject an international solution to its own conflict with the Palestinians.

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