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ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS

Escalating violence in the Middle East is providing the first key foreign policy test for the Bush Administration, but in reality there is little America can accomplish in the current Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom.

Both sides in this developing crisis have embarked on a road that leads solely to pain. The failure of the eight-year peace process launched in Oslo and brokered by the United States leaves hope only that the violence will give way, once both sides have had pain enough, to a coexistence agreement that will fall far short of the full-blown peace that once seemed possible.

Ironically, the most succinct summary of the crisis came from Palestinian leaders who ought to take their own words to heart. "Violence only begets violence," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Yet it is the violence unleashed by Arafat -- which he may no longer be able to control -- that sent Israelis flocking to the polls to elect hard-liner Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

In words, both sides have condemned the bloodshed. Actions tell another story. The bus attack that killed eight soldiers -- apparently an individual act rather than sponsored terrorism -- followed by a day the Israeli government assassination of a Palestinian security officer. Nations that spent Tuesday condemning Israel's "extrajudicial executions" risked diplomatic whiplash in condemning Wednesday's terrorism.

Nearly 400 persons have died in four months of violence, most of them Palestinians. Yet Palestinians -- with little attempt at control by Arafat despite his spoken condemnation of violence -- are now escalating both the intensity of their attacks and the weaponry used in them, in reaction to the Feb. 6 election of Sharon.

And they are suffering economically as well. Restrictions at crossing points between Israeli and Palestinian-controlled territory have cost Palestinians more than $1 billion, according to U.N. estimates. Normally, some 150,000 Palestinian workers cross daily into Israel proper, and restrictions had eased in recent weeks. In reaction to the bus attack, which may have been triggered in part by the driver's despair over declining work on that commuter run, Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That, too, will escalate the pain and probably the response. While attacks understandably heighten Israeli fears, Israel's leaders should consider the warnings of some within the government that closing the borders will worsen an already bad Palestinian economy and fuel even more desperation, anger and violence.

America's policy challenges are far-reaching. Former president Bill Clinton's high-pressure push for peace led to major Israeli concessions that went unanswered by Palestinians, and were resented by many Israelis. Few Arabs view this country as the "disinterested broker" it has claimed to be.

If the Promised Land promises anything these days, it's trouble. There is no foundation of trust for peace talks, and limited opportunities for America to play a mediating role. The mandatory first step for any progress in that direction is an end to the escalation and counter-escalation of violence, directly agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinians, but that end is not yet in sight.

All that's on the horizon now is more blood.

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