Editorial: Bloody weekend / The U.S. must intervene in the Middle East
Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Last weekend's exchange of bloody tit-for-tats between the Palestinians and Israelis, now expanded to include Syria on the receiving end, leaves the rest of the world gasping for breath. More U.S. and international involvement is called for than just the ritual dance that occurred in the U.N. Security Council Sunday.

A young Palestinian female suicide bomber carried out an attack Saturday in a Haifa restaurant on the eve of the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, killing 19, including three children. One of the Palestinian militant groups, Islamic Jihad, claimed credit for the brutal assault.

In return, Israel carried out an aerial bombing Sunday on a camp 12 miles northwest of the Syrian capital, Damascus; a civilian guard may have been injured. Israel says the post was a training camp for Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but the Syrians say it was a refugee camp. The Israeli air assault inside Syria was the first in 30 years.

Some Middle Eastern observers are speculating that the camp might also have hosted some of the Islamic fighters who are attacking Americans and Iraqis cooperating with the Americans in Iraq, an interpretation that would make the Israeli attack more palatable to the United States.

The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session Sunday, with Syria presenting a resolution condemning Israel for its attack. The United States said it would veto the resolution unless Islamic Jihad and Hamas were condemned as well. The meeting adjourned without action, with no date set for a vote. Check and mate there, in all likelihood.

So what now? In spite of President Bush's commitment to the two-state plan of the "road map" and the efforts of the quartet that devised it -- the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States -- the process is currently off the rails. The Palestinians' negotiating team is in disarray from wrangling between Yasser Arafat, who is trying to hang onto authority, and newer Palestinian leaders, who may be more acceptable to Israel and the United States.

In the meantime, Israel is proceeding with construction of its 400-mile wall and fence across the West Bank and has announced that it will construct 600 new houses in its settlements, rather than dismantle them under terms of the "road map." The United States continues to weasel on whether it will cut off any of Israel's requested $9 billion in loan guarantees or $3 billion in annual aid if Israel proceeds with construction of the barrier.

People who have watched the Middle East for many years always hope that the scope of the horror that the two sides wreak upon each other will drive them into serious, constructive negotiations. It doesn't seem to be occurring now.

That says that, unless the United States is prepared to sit on its hands and let the slaughter continue -- and possibly expand into a regional war that includes Syria -- it needs to move, and move quickly.

Could President Bush invite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Syrian President Bashar Assad, a selection of Palestinian leaders and the Egyptian president and Jordanian king, for example, to an urgent Washington or Camp David summit to try to end the bloodshed and restart talks?

Even with the situation in Iraq, "no action" is simply not an acceptable U.S. position.

First published on October 7, 2003 at 12:00 am