The bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, in which twenty Israelis, many of them teenagers, were killed, was an atrocity of such horror that it seemed to shock both sides into taking steps toward installing a very tentative, precarious cease-fire. In the aftermath Secretary of State Colin Powell ritually urged Yasir Arafat to "take every action necessary to bring those responsible to justice" and continued to defend the Administration's refusal to become directly involved. This posture (barely modified by the dispatch of George Tenet to the region in response to growing international pressure) betrays an ongoing, willful and dangerous blindness to the consequences of US actions and inaction.
As events accelerated to what Powell called "the edge of a very deep hole," Secretary Powell has seemed almost eerily disengaged, intoning with bureaucratic punctilio when asked if he had requested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not to retaliate, "I have not given that direct comment to the Israeli government." After telling Sharon a month ago to pull his troops out of their brief reoccupation of a sliver of Gaza, he ducked behind Bush's campaign-rhetoric Mideast policy of "Clinton not"--hands off until conditions ripen on their own to create a greater likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Yet it is Sharon--whose ruthlessness has been well demonstrated and who is a champion of the Israeli expansionism that's at the root of the Palestinian despair that drives more desperate acts--who should be curbed from using the senseless bombing as a pretext for drastic military reprisal intended to wipe out the Palestinian Authority's institutions.
And so, with no moral leadership being voiced by officials of either party in Washington and a press that is locked in a pro-Israel tilt, the American public casts a plague on both houses.
Of course, the image of the United States as a low-profile "honest broker" is false. The Bush Administration has been following the Clinton Administration's blindly pro-Israel policy since it took office. Last month, it failed to raise the issue of Sharon's deployment of American-made F-16s in a retaliatory strike. In January it increased military aid to Israel; in February it cleared the way for the sale of nine Apache attack helicopters to Israel; in March, it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an unarmed observer force.
What the Administration should be talking about is a new policy: putting pressure on Israel, not just the Palestinians. That could mean suspending military help or at least threatening to withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid that goes indirectly into supporting and expanding the settlements. (Bush Senior issued such a threat, and the pressure helped move then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.) It should be calling not only for Palestinians to clamp down on terrorist operations but for Israel's adoption of the Mitchell report's proposed freeze on settlements, including no more expansion to accommodate "natural" growth of population, and withdrawal of its troops to pre-September 28, 2000, positions.
Ultimately, US policy must be predicated on the goal of creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and, to that end, the abandonment of all the Israeli settlements. This is the only solution that can insure Israel's security as well as the Palestinians' right to self-determination. As Richard Falk, a member of the Nation's editorial board who traveled to the region with a UN mission in February, recently revealed, conditions in the Palestinian territories have badly deteriorated. The mission found that Israeli policies of settlement expansion and bypass roads, destruction of Palestinian houses, commandeering of their land and water, random assassinations of their leadership and denial of access to education, jobs and healthcare have become intolerable. The mission concluded that Israel's use of force against the intifada has been excessive and that its conduct as occupying power and its callous treatment of Palestinian refugees have entailed numerous violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The mission called for an international protective presence in the territories, along with implementation of longstanding UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention.
If these things are not done, and if the Palestinians fail to see that terrorism is not just immoral but increasingly counterproductive, the consequences will be deeper immiseration of the Palestinians and demoralization of Israeli society. Americans should demand action by their government to halt a growing tragedy.