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Mary McGrory

Speaking From The Sidelines

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, April 4, 2002; Page A17

Those of us who thought the madness in the Middle East might galvanize George Bush and cause him to dispatch Colin Powell to the scene on the double were startled by what happened. The leader of the free world lolled in a lounger in Crawford, Tex., and told Ariel Sharon to go to it.

"I think Chairman Arafat could do a lot more," he said.

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More? Diminished, humiliated, cornered, with tanks at his feet and helicopter gunships over his head, Arafat is to take charge and lead his people? All that was needed, the president indicated, to stop the bloody invasion of the West Bank -- which was caused by the Palestinian suicide bombers, who were driving Sharon crazy -- was for Arafat to tell fanatical young Arabs who want to blow themselves up for glory and bonuses for their families to just say no -- in Arabic.

He did no such thing. Nobody knows exactly what Arafat wants -- it sure isn't peace -- but he wants above all to bait the brute Ariel Sharon. When he was interviewed in his bunker by cell phone and flashlight, Arafat told the Arabic-language al-Jazeera, "I want to be a martyr, martyr, martyr, martyr." His apologists say that shared death is the only thing he can proffer to the young, who have no homes, jobs or hopes.

But if Arafat is not helping with deranged and despairing Palestinian teenagers, who blew up Jews at their Seder, what reason does anyone have for thinking Sharon's way will work any better?

Invading Bethlehem, surrounding the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, blowing up people's homes or locking down their towns and demolishing police stations and municipal offices is not the way to win hearts and minds. National Public Radio had a story about a woman pregnant with a much-desired baby boy only to have him stillborn at a military checkpoint -- soldiers prevented her from going to a nearby hospital in time.

Nor was it good for the Jews to have the world see Palestinian families mourning their dead who had to be buried in a hospital parking lot because the morgue is full. Sharon is inadvertently recruiting suicide bombers by the hour.

Arafat is having all the short-term advantage -- the only kind that interests him -- from his bunker soapbox. Human rights workers push their way past troops to pay homage to him in the dark. When the soldiers got it into their heads to invade a Ramallah hospital and search the beds for weapons, white-coated doctors poured out of the building, locked arms and bade the warriors be gone.

Obviously, a third party is needed. Bush doesn't mind sending troops into many countries, from the Philippines to Yemen, but he sees Israel as a loser. Bear down too hard and you lose the Jews; let things play out and Europe screams.

Arafat has been playing to the world. Sharon is playing to an audience of one, George W. Bush. The president appears to be putty in his hand. Sharon knows what buttons to push for the antiterrorism crusader. The Israeli leader's words justifying his assault on the occupied territories were chosen to pull Bush's heartstrings. Mourning the fact that he had done everything to bring about a cease-fire, Sharon said, "All Israel got in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism." What he is doing now, he said, is just what George Bush is doing -- he is fighting "against the infrastructure of terrorism."

Bush's handling of the crisis he prefers not to see has brought him bad notices from abroad, and although Democrats are still too intimidated by the polls to take him on, Republican Arlen Specter bravely said Bush should get "more involved."

One of the reasons Bush has stubbornly stayed out of Israel is that he has been saving himself for Iraq. His hope of leading a coalition of Saddam Hussein's neighbors was pretty well destroyed by Vice President Dick Cheney's hapless tour of the area. Now large anti-Israel, anti-U.S. demonstrations are filling squares in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and Bush's dream is as shattered as a Palestinian police station on the West Bank. Bush's most faithful and enthusiastic ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, has done a dance of the seven veils about the expedition to Baghdad. He comes to Crawford this weekend.

Bush may insist on the action, but if he's riding in the lead tank, he'll have only Sharon beside him. His hearty counselors have said we should go alone if need be. By yesterday, Bush had at least stopped repeating the mantra he has used throughout -- Tenet-Mitchell. Tenet is the plan named for CIA Director George, and mandates a cease-fire before talks. Mitchell, named for former senator George, mandates talks, particularly about the Palestinians' greatest grievance, the settlements. The fact that the president is willing to forgo a boost for his favorite agency suggests that finally he is taking the Mideast crisis seriously.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company