US can't be hands-off in Mideast

As Israelis and Palestinians enter their 11th month of violent conflict, the region is edging ever closer to the abyss, with daily incidents reminding us of the risk of a more generalized confrontation.

The relentless cycle of violence continues to escalate. Calls to reinvigorate the Arab boycott of Israel have been renewed. And an odious "Zionism-is-racism" resolution has reemerged in the run-up to the UN Conference on Racism in South Africa. These developments threaten not only Israel's security and the political aspirations of Palestinians. They also threaten America's crucial interest in regional stability.

The best means of interrupting the cycle of violence is to persuade the parties to use as a framework the recommendations of the so-called Mitchell-Rudman Report, which calls for steps designed to unconditionally halt the violence, rebuild confidence among the parties, and, eventually, resume negotiations. The only major international actor with the credibility to persuade the parties to implement these steps is the United States.

Those who argue against bolder and more intensive high-level US engagement invoke several major objections. None is convincing.

First, they say: "The process must be sequential. End the violence, then the US can turn to other aspects of the Mitchell report." Of course, the initial priority must be to unconditionally end the violence, and to sustain a period of peace during which confidence might be restored. And it is true that the Palestinian leadership must do much more to end the violence.

Their unwillingness to confront forcefully terrorists within Palestinian ranks is inexcusable. But while the Mitchell report requires an immediate end to violence, followed by implementation of key confidence-building measures, it is also comprehensive, and makes clear that there cannot be an exclusively security solution to what is essentially a political conflict.

Just as many Israelis fear that Palestinian shooting will intensify the minute they implement the steps recommended to them by the Mitchell report (including reimbursing tax revenues due to the Palestinian Authority, allowing screened Palestinian workers back into Israel, adopting a settlement freeze), many Palestinians fear that Israel will equivocate on implementing the report's recommendations once the Palestinians meet their obligations (including stopping terrorist violence, resuming security cooperation, and arresting known terrorists).

To break this cycle, the Palestinians must unequivocally end the violence. At the same time, they must be told what will follow. For them to take the first step on the journey back toward negotiations, they must know what lies down the road.

Second, they argue: "The US administration has already tried, and failed, to end the violence, despite having deployed its major policy players - CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Powell - in the effort."

But the question is not only who is doing the proposing, it's also what's being proposed. So far, the administration has focused on security measures, which, standing alone, cannot succeed. What is needed now is a detailed and precise description of the reciprocal steps both sides must take, together with third-party monitoring to ensure that they observe their commitments. This must be presented by high-level administration officials, in ongoing consultation with the parties, and pressed over time.

Getting the parties to accept a plan will require intensive US mediation of the type that's succeeded in the past - between Egypt and Israel, for example, or more recently, between Israelis and Palestinians in the run-up to the 1998 Wye Plantation agreement.

Third, those who argue for a hands-off US response say: "The Israelis and Palestinians must be the ones to make the hard decisions. Peace cannot be imposed by an outside mediator."

This is absolutely true. Of course, it would be best if the two sides could agree now, on their own, on the sequence of steps they will take. But they haven't thus far, and in the meantime the situation is eroding rapidly. Despite their mutual, qualified acceptance of the Mitchell report, neither side will volunteer to begin to implement it in the current context.

Only a third party like the United States can break this impasse and create conditions that could enable a return to negotiations.

Fourth, they assert: "US engagement is futile, since we now know that Chairman Arafat is not interested in peace, but merely in pressing for more Israeli concessions through violence."

Certainly, the notion that the Palestinian leadership no longer is a partner for peace has been a prevailing view among many since the collapse of the Camp David talks and the onset of the intifada. But it is not clear that there is any viable alternative Palestinian leadership.

Finally, they say: "A failed effort by the administration will undermine US credibility in the region and hamper its efforts for the remainder of President Bush's term."

Any involvement carries the threat of failure. But today, the risks of inaction far outweigh those of action. If we try, the situation may not get any better. If we do not, it almost certainly will get worse. Should it make the effort, the administration deserves to know that it will enjoy the support of Congress and the American people.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.

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