The Bush administration's efforts to restrain Israel in its war against Palestinian terrorism are understandable but misguided.
Last week, the administration demanded that the Israeli army end operations in several West Bank cities, which President George W. Bush called "unhelpful." Israel did withdraw from most of the cities and the American special envoy to the Mideast, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, held a well-publicized meeting with Yasser Arafat, handing the Palestinian leader a propaganda victory.
If the Zinni mission leads to Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations, without the prior cessation of terrorist attacks upon which Israel has insisted as a condition, that will count as another victory for Arafat's terrorist tactics.
The administration's purpose was to make it easier for Vice President Richard Cheney, who has been touring Mideast capitals, to enlist the support of Arab governments in a campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Hussein's removal is important for Israel as well as for the United States, and it is reasonable for the American government to ask its only democratic ally in the region to do what it can to help achieve that goal.
But Washington's opposition to Israel's operations, undertaken in self-defense, will have the perverse and unintended effect of encouraging precisely the kind of terrorism in the Mideast against which the United States is waging war around the world.
The apologists for the ongoing Palestinian terrorism claim that the violence against Israeli civilians committed by suicide bombers and members of Arafat's militia is designed to lift the occupation under which Palestinians live and speed the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Both claims are false.
Palestinians do live under an oppressive, corrupt regime, but it is headed by Yasser Arafat. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords of 1993, his Palestinian Authority controls the daily lives of virtually all Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. As for a sovereign Palestinian state, the then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat one at Camp David in 2000. It encompassed almost all the territory Israel captured in the war of June 1967, which was begun by its Arab neighbors. The offer also included Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Arafat rejected the offer, made no counterproposal, and started the war against Israeli civilians that rages today.
In fact, Arafat's goal is the destruction of the Jewish state, which he seeks to achieve in two ways. One is to demoralize Israelis by making terrorism a part of their daily lives. The other is to produce so much violence that other parties will enter the conflict, either to fight alongside the Palestinians or to impose a settlement favorable to them. The Bush Administration's intervention plays into this second tactic, demonstrating to Arafat that violence serves his purpose and that the more violence he unleashes the closer he will come to his goal.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can only be settled by a territorial compromise. But such a compromise will occur only when the Palestinians discard Arafat and his cronies in favor of a leadership interested in peace with Israel. Like his fellow unelected Arab dictators, Arafat will not be easy to dislodge. But one condition for his removal is persuading those he rules that his efforts to destroy Israel by violence will fail.
The Israeli military operations to root out Arafat's terrorist infrastructure were designed, among other purposes, to demonstrate that armed assaults against Israel will not succeed: American efforts to restrain those operations undercuts that message and thus encourages continued Palestinian assaults on Israelis.
After Sept. 11, President Bush vowed to pursue terrorists wherever they are. The ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the prospective conflict with Iraq, follow from that commitment. But Israel is also fighting terrorism. Arafat has the same goal as Saddam Hussein had in invading Kuwait in 1990: to destroy an internationally recognized country. And he employs the same tactics as Osama bin Laden: murdering innocent people. Attempting to obstruct Israel's resistance to him inhibits the global campaign on which the United States has embarked.
Michael Mandelbaum is a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.