- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

It's time for the Bush administration to get serious about Middle East diplomacy. It shouldn't start by criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he tries to pound Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the peace table.

The return of President Bush's envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, to the region this week may be the beginning of concerted peace efforts, but there's reason to think it's not.

Even though violence is getting worse by the day, Mr. Zinni is not leaving until late in the week, suggesting the trip is mostly designed to protect the 11-nation mission of Vice President Richard Cheney, who is scouting support for a U.S. attack on Iraq a worthy endeavor.

Absent the Zinni mission, Mideast experts say, Mr. Cheney was likely to encounter nonstop questioning about what the United States would do for Palestinians as he tried to persuade Arab regimes to assist a U.S. campaign against Iraq. Now he has an answer.

But the last time Mr. Zinni went to the region, in December, he was met by a round of savage Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians and quickly returned home.

The administration's attitude has been that Mr. Zinni wouldn't return until the Arabs and Israelis were ready to talk about a cease-fire, which they may not be even now.

It's up to Mr. Zinni and the administration to lean hard and keep leaning on Mr. Arafat to stop Palestinian violence, which is the key to getting Mr. Sharon to stop using violence in return.

Practically no one, including in Israel, wholeheartedly supports Mr. Sharon's brute-force tactics including bombingraids against Mr. Arafat's various offices. But they are designed, after all, to force the Palestinian leader to live up to his promises to end attacks on Israelis.

Meantime, the administration is sending mixed messages, suggesting that U.S. support for Mr. Sharon may be wavering just as the going is getting toughest for Israel.

Previously, Mr. Bush has been unswerving in his backing of Mr. Sharon to the point of refusing to see Mr. Arafat but last Wednesday Secretary of State Colin Powell rapped the prime minister in congressional testimony.

"Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies to see if they will work," Mr. Powell said. "If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians you can kill, I don't know that leads us anywhere."

Last Thursday, when the president announced the Zinni mission, he went out of his way to say he understood that his "friend" Mr. Sharon needed to protect Israelis from terrorism and that Mr. Arafat is not doing enough to stop it.

On the other hand, Mr. Bush also said, "the administration speaks with one voice," approvingly adding that Mr. Powell had "pretty tough words for both sides" and accusing Mr. Sharon of "causing violence to escalate" and, implicitly, of lacking "a vision for peace."

Mr. Sharon did indicate, in one characteristically undiplomatic outburst, that his policy toward Palestinians is this: "We have to cause them heavy casualties and then they'll know that they can't keep using terror to win political achievements."

On the other hand, contrary to Mr. Powell's accusation, Mr. Sharon explicitly has not declared all-out war on Mr. Arafat or the Palestinian Authority he heads.

That is the policy being recommended by Mr. Sharon's right-wing rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for destroying the P.A., driving Mr. Arafat into exile, and sending Israeli troops to reoccupy West Bank territories now under Palestinian control.

If the administration undercuts Mr. Sharon, who is under increasing criticism at home and abroad, the beneficiaries are likely to be Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat, who in 2000 rejected the best peace proposal Palestinians have ever been offered and initiated violence to get better terms. It hasn't stopped.

At one point, there was a question whether Mr. Arafat could control terrorist acts carried out by militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Now, though, groups connected directly to Mr. Arafat's Fatah party, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, are openly conducting attacks. And Mr. Arafat's West Bank deputy, Marwan Barghouti, is claiming credit for them.

U.S. policy and American public attitudes have to be based squarely on the reality that there would be no violence if Palestinians didn't initiate it and if Mr. Arafat lived up to his promises to bring it under control.

Mr. Sharon's policy, as he said at one point last week, is to wage "an aggressive and continuous campaign, without letup, and when the other side understands it can't achieve anything through terror, it will be easier to enter negotiations."

Mr. Zinni needs to tell Mr. Arafat that if he doesn't fulfill his obligations to control violence, the United States will back Mr. Sharon as he demolishes Palestinian infrastructure.

Mr. Zinni might also advise Mr. Arafat that his refusal to end terrorism could bring down Mr. Sharon's government which is not likely to lead to a victory by Israel's Labor Party, which favors withdrawal from the West Bank, but by Mr. Netanyahu.

In short, the way for the United States to begin making peace is to convince Mr. Arafat that he is on the verge of losing everything he has achieved in his career if he doesn't do his part.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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