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A call to cool off the Mideast crisis

Washington should facilitate aid for Palestinians and support moderate Islamic and Arabic elements.

It's always an error to deal with Middle East events in narrow compartments. Local mediation may suspend the present Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza. But only renewed, concerted diplomacy by the US, Europe, the Arab states, and Israel to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace accord will block new crises.

The current escalation of attacks, which began with Palestinians firing rockets from northern Gaza into Israel and Israel retaliating by aiming artillery fire at the presumed sources of that rocket fire, threatens to further unravel already stalled progress toward peace in the entire region. Compounding the situation, on June 25, Palestinian militants stole into Israel and kidnapped Israeli army Cpl. Gilad Shalit. They continue to hold him hostage as of this writing.

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Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who unlike predecessors is not a retired military man and who backed withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza a year ago, is hanging tough. To try to compel Corporal Shalit's safe return, he has ordered Israeli land, sea, and air forces to largely knock out electricity, water, roads, food, and fuel supplies for Gaza's suffering 1.4 million civilians.

What Mr. Olmert and his armed forces say is the intended rescue of Shalit is rapidly ballooning into what observers on the ground view as a sustained effort to destroy Hamas, the elected Islamist party controlling the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Olmert's intention to wreck Hamas and the PA became obvious with the ensuing Israeli detention of scores of West Bank PA cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, and aerial assaults to destroy their homes, offices, and infrastructure in Gaza, branded a "terrorist headquarters" by Israel.

Israel and the West refuse to deal with the Hamas-controlled PA and have cut off funds because the Hamas charter refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence in fighting for a single Islamic state to replace it. Before Shalit's kidnapping, Hamas had agreed with its rival party in the PA, Fatah, on a formula involving at least implied recognition of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with it.

Only after urgent calls by the United Nations and Western governments did Israel briefly interrupt its blockade at one Gaza border crossing on July 1 to admit some humanitarian supplies. That probably saved some lives, but brought only token relief. Decisive US involvement, which the Bush administration seems to avoid when it can, will be inevitable to prevent the highly combustible Israeli-Hamas warfare from inflaming the entire region.

In addition to the escalation in Gaza, Israel's air force buzzed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's residence – reportedly to intimidate Syria into giving up extremist Hamas leaders such as Khaled Mashal. And John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, has called on the Syrian government to arrest Mr. Mashal. But these moves have only stiffened resistance and increased alarm in the Muslim world.

The July 1 issue of The Economist suggests one cause of this resistance and alarm over US and Israeli intentions: US-encouraged Arab reform movements, and occasional concurrent moderation toward Israel, are waning fast. Islamist parties have eclipsed secular forces in embattled Iraq. Islamists gained in recent Saudi Arabian polls. And despite severe police repression of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the parent of Hamas, it won 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's latest parliamentary election. Moreover, Islamists have made political gains in Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, and non-Arab Somalia. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, urging Israel's eradication, joins Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in urging (and aiding) Hamas to fight Israel.

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Similar spreading of past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts led to big wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, and in Lebanon in 1982. This time, Israel's ironbound peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan should preclude large-scale, general war. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of the US, has sent his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to try for a deal between obdurate Arab militants who want Israel to swap at least 1,000 of an estimated 10,000 Palestinian prisoners for the safe release of Shalit.

But the US now urgently needs to exercise the same sustained, direct influence that in the late 1980s brought the Palestine Liberation Organization's renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and the direct US-PLO contacts leading to the peace agreements in Oslo and Washington in 1993. These agreements and the subsequent "road map" for peace collapsed, arguably partly because of neglect by a Washington influenced by extremist Israeli policies and the impotence of US public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

President Bush and especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however tardily, show some understanding of these factors. Washington should now take a bold lead to facilitate humanitarian aid to the beleagured Palestinian people. And they should provide strong, publicly visible support to Islamic and Arab moderate elements in the present crisis. That would secure gains in Mr. Bush's "war on terrorism" and help to get the derailed Arab-Israeli peace efforts back on track.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, has covered the Middle East since the late 1950s. His most recent book is "An Alliance Against Babylon, the US, Israel and Iraq."