February 1, 2002

Los Angeles Times

Keep a Line Open to Arafat

                   The Bush administration, having twice sent an envoy to the Middle East and having warned Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat countless times to arrest terrorists and stop the violence, now has moved more deeply into the camp of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A step back is in order.

                   The big winners since the start of the second uprising against Israel 16 months ago have not been Israel or the Palestinian Authority or the United States. They have been the two main Palestinian terrorist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both singled out for condemnation by President Bush in his State of the Union speech.

                   Israel's ''targeted assassination'' of individual terrorists has not increased the nation's security, and its settlements in territory that Palestinians believe Israel promised to return have inflamed passions. Palestinian terror groups have made bitter enemies of many Israelis who once supported the peace process. How can a man whose wife has been murdered by a suicide bomber support a deal with a group whose members include terrorists? Counseling peace is easy. Turning the other cheek is difficult. Then there's the economic toll. Shopkeepers on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road have lost business because customers don't want to risk being in an area where a Palestinian gunman raked a line of people waiting for a bus and days later--last Sunday--a Palestinian woman killed herself and an Israeli bystander and wounded scores of people when a bomb she was carrying exploded. In the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli checkpoints keep people from leaving to earn a living. The Palestinian economy is a shambles.

                   The United States' basic support of Israel, of course, must remain unshakable. Israel, founded after the Holocaust, is a democracy in a region where many of its neighbors refuse to recognize its right to exist. It has been forced to fight for its survival in four wars.

                   Last month Israeli commandos seized a boat carrying 50 tons of rockets, mortars and explosives to the Palestinian Authority. Bush and his advisors then discussed shutting the authority's Washington office and putting Arafat's personal security force on the State Department's list of terrorist groups. It's hard to see how that would help matters.

                   The administration has to keep the channels of communication open with the Palestinians. Yes, the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and despised even by many of those it represents. But it's the only organization to talk to now.

                   The main burden is on Arafat to stop the violence. If he can't or won't, Israel and the United States will have to look elsewhere for a partner in dialogue. But there is no guarantee things will improve when Arafat dies or is removed.

                   Sharon is due to visit the White House next week. He should bring not merely a justification for keeping Yasser Arafat under virtual house arrest but proposals for returning to the peace process. And, while Bush should work with Sharon toward that end, it would be foolish for the president to embrace the lifelong hawk as the only personification of the olive branch.