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The US-Mideast two-step

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may well remember his latest trip to Washington as a disaster.

It had been so well prepared. Advance spin from Jerusalem had him bringing a "most serious" peace plan involving the "painful concessions" he had spoken of earlier. The powerful pro-Israeli lobbies had helped get blank-check solidarity resolutions through the Congress by overwhelming majorities.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, House majority whip and a political ally of President Bush, led the effort with a rousing speech. Prime Minister Sharon came with a satchel full of documents, intending to prove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's full complicity in the suicide bombings and therefore his irrelevancy to the peace process.

Mr. Bush should have been mightily impressed. Apparently, he wasn't. He brushed off the documents and, as for Mr. Arafat's relevance, affirmed his stand that neither the United States nor anyone else – only the Palestinian people – could choose their leaders.

With Mr. Sharon beside him in the Oval Office, the president spoke to reporters about building a Palestinian state with a better, unified security force and other institutions, a constitution, and a framework for economic development to bring security and hope to the Palestinians. He urged Sharon to open closed areas of the West Bank as soon as possible to let the people get back to work. Sharon called discussion of a state premature.

The president spoke of dismantling Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. As symbols of colonization, they are one of the most sensitive points in the whole drama. Sharon dismissed this also as premature. The prime minister sought to discredit Saudi Arabia as a neutral partner in the pursuit of peace. Bush reportedly stressed what he called the promise lying in the deeper involvement of the Arab states. Those who were waiting for Sharon's most serious peace plan waited in vain.

The suicide attack near Tel Aviv that cut short the prime minister's visit was another bitter blow, in more ways than one. For months, Sharon had hurled tanks, planes, and bombs and artillery against what he labeled the Palestinian terrorists' infrastructure.

The offensive was meant to provide security for Israelis. Manifestly, it did not. What it really did was smash what there was of Palestinian civil society and bring blame on Israel. In addition, it showed Israelis and others that the prime minister really had no peace plan, but only the delusion that military action could solve the problem of fitting Israel into the Levantine community.

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