The Clinton administration made a mistake when it failed, until it was too late, to involve Arab nations in trying to bring peace to the Middle East.
President Bush has learned from that error, dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to meet with leaders of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt before he heads for Israel. Arab nations can influence not just the Palestinians but each other. Saudi Arabia, for instance, won acceptance for its peace proposal involving "normal relations" with Israel even from Syria, a more radical nation with great influence over groups attacking Israel from Lebanon.
Powell's schedule, though not the trip itself, raised some eyebrows among Arab states. The king of Morocco sharply asked Powell Monday why he didn't go to Jerusalem first, to apply immediate pressure to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to end Israel's continued occupation of West Bank cities. Powell said he wanted to consult first with Arab and European nations. A reasonable answer, but Powell's timetable unfortunately left the door open for more Israeli attacks on Palestinian territories in the West Bank, an onslaught that began nearly two weeks ago after a suicide bombing killed two dozen Israeli civilians at a Passover dinner.
Sharon has rejected U.S. demands that he halt the offensive "without delay," and Israeli troops are expected to start withdrawing in force only when Powell arrives. The fighting between Palestinians and Israelis has sparked demonstrations in Arab nations including Jordan and Egypt, which broke with their brethren years ago and extended diplomatic recognition to Israel. Now they find their citizens asking what benefits have come from relations with Israel.
Just as Washington is leaning on Israel to stop its military attacks, Arab nations should pressure Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to stop the Palestinian violence. Powell, who has not committed to meeting with Arafat, should do so despite fears in Israel that the meeting would bolster the prestige of Arafat, whom Sharon has tried to isolate. Washington has made clear that it disagrees with Sharon's contention that Arafat is irrelevant and with demands by some Israelis that the Palestinian Authority be destroyed. That should not stop Powell from also meeting with Palestinians who might succeed Arafat.
Arab nations know that Arafat blundered two years ago in not accepting the offer of a Palestinian state made by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David after lengthy negotiations brokered by President Clinton. When Arafat's recalcitrance became apparent, Clinton asked Arab nations to help, but that plea came too late. Palestinian violence against Israelis began soon afterward.
The United States has no choice but to redouble efforts to bring Palestinian and Israeli negotiators together. That will require support from those who might have Arafat's ear. Whatever Arab leaders may say for public consumption during Powell's visit, none of them can be happy with the Palestinian leader. This is their chance to push from one side while Powell pushes from the other.
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