Before peace, restore order

If there existed a simple solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one simple enough to explain in two 14-inch columns of text, it would have been implemented by now. During the past five decades, questions regarding religion, geography and human rights have been gruesomely debated on a civilian battlefield. In a broader context, the last half-century is just an extension of a battle that has raged for several millennia. We do not have a plan to end this conflict.

But we know where to begin.

The killings must stop. This week’s suicide bombings left 27 dead and prompted a barrage of Israeli attacks on Palestinian police and administrative installations. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush demanded Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat round up leaders of terrorist organizations. Most notable are those heading the militant Islamic group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the bombings.

Arafat replied he could not capture any of the more than 100 suspected terrorist leaders unless the attacks on Palestinians stopped and he was given ample time. Israel, with the backing of the United States, refused, citing Arafat’s past behavior of catching suspects in a gesture of cooperation, but releasing them later without punishment.

Arafat has, since being allowed back into the area after the 1993 Oslo peace accords, repeatedly allowed – or, perhaps more accurately, refused to disallow – the use of violence for political gain. When compromises unsavory to militant Palestinians seemed at hand, a bomb or two suspended negotiations and prompted a fresh round of attacks from both sides. And so the cyclical “peace” process has continued: Both sides come to the negotiating table, both make concessions, Arafat agrees to something the militants don’t want, terrorists kill civilians, Israelis kill Palestinians, the situation cools off and both sides come back to the table.

This time, however, the situation is different for the United States. Because this nation has declared the worldwide elimination of terrorism one of its primary goals, the United States can no longer afford to ignore the cycle and simply try again later – not while U.S. troops are doing battle in Afghanistan and could soon do battle in a Middle Eastern nation. Because of those battles, the potential for U.S. involvement in a war there has never been greater. And because of Bush’s stated desire to support an independent Palestinian state, neither has the potential for lasting peace.

With such a state of affairs, the United States cannot just withdraw from the conflict altogether, nor can our officials act as if we had nothing to do with its origins. Many blame the United States for the conflict in the first place, both because of our role in establishing Israel and our continued financial support for the country. America is already involved.

If the conflict’s recent history has proven anything, it is that violence impedes progress. So the violence must stop. If Israel were to try to stop terrorists as vehemently as they are able, the increased casualties would further destabilize the region. Arafat is either incapable or unwilling to make any real progress and, if he did, he could find himself in the middle of another Palestinian civil war. Israel’s neighbors certainly can’t be trusted to keep the peace there.

So the United States must step in. Arafat said he needs more time and a cessation of Israeli attacks to do any good. U.S. and Israeli officials should do everything they can to accommodate him. For 48 hours, Israel should cease all military activity in the area and give Arafat the opportunity to do some good. If, after the 48 hours are up, Arafat has not rounded up the suspects – whether through unwillingness or inability – U.S. special forces should move in and take over the search. Without Israeli military support, the United States can legitimately claim to be neutral between Israel and Palestine, a claim that, though made only in recent years, is paramount to our efforts in the region.

While the terrorist leaders are being hunted, they will have little opportunity to plan any more attacks. And when they are eventually caught, our troops should immediately turn the suspects over to Arafat.

By doing so, one way or another, the cycle will end. If Arafat again tries to appease terrorists by falsely acquitting or prematurely releasing the suspects, he will have definitively chosen their side in plain view of the rest of the world. If he decides to honestly prosecute the terrorists, he will have earned our and, grudgingly, Israel’s backing. In that case, if the more militant Palestinians bent on eradicating Israel attempt to overthrow Arafat, he can honestly ally himself and his supporters with the United States and, more important in this situation, the U.S. military. If the terrorists decide once and for all to follow Arafat, honest talks can immediately and finally begin on the formation of a peaceful Palestinian state.

Where things go from there is beyond our foresight. But before any real progress is made, the killing must cease. This cessation should be America’s goal.