US Hands in the Mideast

Bill Clinton used to say the United States could not really negotiate peace in a conflict unless the warring parties grew weary of fighting. Still, he tried to be a hand-holder in many a world trouble spot.

Almost the same statement was made by the new secretary of State, Colin Powell: "In the end, we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves." But, in contrast with Mr. Clinton, President Bush prefers to be hands-off in conflicts unless they directly affect US interests.

With Palestinians and Hizbullah guerrillas sending rockets down on Israelis, and Israel responding with "surgical" force and even occupation of Palestinian territory, Mr. Bush must decide soon whether he or his diplomats should play the broker role.

He has signaled a higher threshold for US involvement in this particular conflict. He dropped both the post of special Mideast envoy and the term "Mideast peace process." And in recalculating US interests in the region, he wants to focus on containing Iraq and perhaps ending its continuing threat to Saudi oil fields.

Just having Bush ask for restraint on all sides of the conflict around Israel may not be enough to prevent an escalation of this latest violence into a larger war. Syria, which backs Hizbullah's attacks from Lebanon, lost troops in the Israeli counterattack. That kind of tactic could soon require outside mediation of some sort.

Many Palestinians, despite seven years of little progress toward creation of a homeland, are venting their frustrations with ever-more-penetrating means of violence, such as mortars. That regrettable choice has been met by a hardening of Israeli attitudes under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Both sides may not want US mediation equally at this point, especially after Mr. Sharon decided to reverse himself and hold talks with the Palestinians directly about the violence.

But it's hard to cleanly separate all of the Mideast fault lines, especially now that militant Islam has seeped into the Palestinian cause. The US may not be able to be a bystander for long, just as Sharon realized that he couldn't avoid direct talks with the Palestinians for long.

Bush is right to search for a new US path in the Mideast. But events, more than his wishes, may be defining the US interests at stake.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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