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New Links in Mideast?

AS Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Bush meet in Washington today, tensions in the Middle East continue to shift and emerge in new forms. Saddam Hussein's move to release all hostages late last week put a new wrinkle in that crisis: Welcome as it was, it raises new questions. Was it an opening gambit for coming talks between Bush and Iraqi foreign minister Aziz?

Meanwhile, United Nations action on a resolution to safeguard Palestinian rights in the territories occupied by Israel puts the United States in an awkward position of trying to hold on to Arab allies while not alienating its closest ally in the region, Israel.

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Crises in the Middle East are proving difficult to keep apart. The US has striven to avoid any linkage between the confrontation with Iraq and the long-running Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As it should.

But the UN Security Council resolution calling for a human rights monitor in the territories and endorsing an international conference on Mideast peace attempts to make that link.

The US stance on that resolution plays inevitably into the talks with Iraq. One of Saddam's demands has been inclusion of other Mideast conflicts in any solution in the Gulf. For all the Bush protestations against ``negotiations,'' that process - the statement of and response to terms - may already be underway.

Mr. Shamir's government has bluntly stated its concern about a negotiated settlement with Iraq - that Saddam's military will be left intact. That's a legitimate worry, given past threats by the Iraqi leader.

Israel's leaders have stated that its interests could demand direct action to weaken Saddam's military. Yet Israel's military prowess is in itself a powerful deterrent to Iraq or any other adversary in the region. Beyond that, the process of negotiation may yet include limits on Iraqi weaponry.

An immediate challenge to Israel comes from the increasingly tense conflict with Palestinians. How will Israel respond to international concerns about that conflict? Bush and Shamir can, we hope, deal constructively with that question.

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