Olive Branches and Whips

ANOTHER horrific attack on Israeli civilians and another peace proposal – this week's events in the Middle East – offer up a stark choice for the United States:

How much should it push a political settlement on the players while the violence rages on?

The choice must be made soon before Israel launches all-out war on the Palestinians, or the US itself decides it's time for a "regime change" in Baghdad.

Waiting for a truce to take hold before peace talks resume has been a failed strategy for the US. Too much is at stake in its own war on terrorism.

Saudi Arabia understood that, and offered a plan most Arab leaders – holding their noses – coolly endorsed on Thursday in Lebanon. (See story, page 6.) It includes Arab acceptance of Israel as a "normal" Mideast state, but with conditions Israel cannot swallow, especially one demanding that Palestinian refugees be allowed back into Israel proper.

That the offer was made at all, and initiated by the richest and most Islam-centric nation, is the one peace hope the US must now cling to. It's a weak olive branch, and one both sides may whip each other with for a while. But for now it's the only hope in town.

Arab leaders are anxious that the Mideast and their fragile regimes are at risk if the US ousts Saddam Hussein and installs a democracy in Iraq.

The US is anxious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain a recruitment poster for anti-US terrorists.

And Israel is anxious over more and more attacks on its people.

Somehow, in all that anxiety lies enough fatigue with the status quo and dreams of peaceful prosperity that a deal can be struck. But the US, with its might and now-dwindling credibility, must make it happen.

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