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US rethinks role as Middle East referee

Sharon visits Washington as Arab nations press US to get more involved in conflict.

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As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes his fourth call on President Bush today, the debate over how much pressure the US should apply to Israel to curtail its hard-line approach to the Palestinians doesn't even figure on the agenda.

It wasn't always so. But in the wake of the war on terrorism, the yellow "caution" lights the United States once flashed at Israel have largely turned green.

And the sea of green - on everything from Israel's isolation and virtual imprisonment of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to its comparison of the struggle with Palestinians to the war on terrorism - is drawing into question the ability of the US government to be a balanced arbiter in one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.

The questioning arises as the Middle East friction demonstrates a worrisome potential to boil over into a larger regional conflict tied up with the US war on terrorism.

Last December, it was Mr. Sharon's conclusion that he left a White House visit then with a "green light" to immediately toughen Israel's military response to Palestinian violence. Outside Arab countries, criticism of the Israeli response has been relatively muted in the face of gruesome civilian killings.

This time, Sharon arrives armed with Israeli evidence of Iran's support for the Islamic extremist organization Hizbullah - which it says is helping units of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization set up shop in southern Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Eliezer, also in the US, says he will ask the US to hit what Israel says are joined Hizbullah and Al Qaeda forces in Lebanon.

In response, Iran - stung by seeing itself included in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" trilogy with Iraq and North Korea - is accusing the US of making a "strategic blunder" by backing Israel's most recent policies toward the Palestinians.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi - considered one of the Iranian government's more moderate officials - warned that the US stance undermines international support for the war on terrorism.

Yet the latest diplomatic maneuverings do not mean that interested parties in the region and around the world have given up on seeing the US don the referee's black-and-white stripes. With a keen recognition that no power can replace the role and influence of the US, Arabs, Europeans, and others are testing what leverage they have to encourage an even-handed American approach to the Middle East conflict.


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