Stopping the Mideast Spiral

Of all the active "fronts" in President Bush's war on terrorism, the one spiraling toward defeat is his mission to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a regular incentive for anti-US terrorism.

Recent events show that the Bush administration's mastery of this Middle Eastern Rubik's Cube has not been bold enough or smart enough, and carries a potential cost to the US far beyond that of postwar Iraq.

Just a few weeks ago, the Bush road map for peace appeared on track, with a temporary cease-fire by Palestinian militants and a new Palestinian prime minister that the US and Israel could work with. But an Israeli assassination of a Palestinian leader who was behind past suicide bombings and President Yasser Arafat's maneuver to appoint a new prime minister put a big tear in the road map.

Bush carries some blame, too, by not putting more pressure on Israel either to stop the construction of a barrier with the West Bank or at least to prevent it from being built into Palestinian areas. The US threat to withhold a portion of a $9 billion loan to Israel wasn't enough to dissuade the right-wing government of Ariel Sharon. Nor did Washington's concerns have much effect in preventing Israel from planning new Jewish settlements in Palestinian land it has controlled since the 1967 war.

Those events are background for Saturday's suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Haifa that left at least 19 people dead and dozens injured, and then Israel's air attack into Syria on Sunday that allegedly hit a terrorist-training camp connected to Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group responsible for the Haifa bombing.

Not only was the killing of civilians in Haifa inexcusable, but it also struck at a symbol of potential peace. The city, and in particular the Maxim restaurant where a Palestinian woman ignited the bomb, are a model of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

The attack in Syria isn't the first time Israel has gone beyond its borders to defend itself. But after the US preemptive war in Iraq, it suggests a loosening of restraint on such sovereignty-busting interventions.

The Middle East needs a stronger, more persistent, and better US hand.

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