Stand by, or on, Israel?

Exactly how the US should help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves as much debate in the presidential campaign as Iraq is receiving now. Both problems are critical to preventing more terrorist attacks on Americans.

Fortunately, the last debate among Democratic candidates opened an opportunity to widen that discussion. In a sharp exchange, Joe Lieberman said Howard Dean's statement that "it's not our place to take sides" would break a 50-year record in which both political parties have supported Israel.

Senator Lieberman assumes, perhaps, that the US should never pressure Israel into making peace concessions. Yet this week President Bush withheld a portion of a $9 billion US loan to Israel because it is expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Mr. Bush may also hold back more money if Israel continues to extend a barrier fence being built, deep into land claimed by the Palestinians, to protect Israel from suicide bombers.

Bush's father was the last US president to use financial pressure on Israel. This time, such sanction may have more effect since Israel's economy is weak.

And just to show that it can be evenhanded in this conflict, the US also vetoed a UN Security Council resolution this week that condemned Israel's plan to "remove" Yasser Arafat.

Just how the US can be a fair broker is worthy of debate, since only it can push along a peace process that's now dead-ended. Before Sept. 11, taking sides wasn't as critical to the US. Now Americans must ask if more intervention will help end the wider war on terrorism.

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