The Bush administration has been so sure-footed in so many areas that it's a shame to notice an exception. But the pronouncements issuing from the State Department are so familiar that it almost seems as if the Clinton folks were still in charge at Foggy Bottom.
After months of vicious violence on the part of the Palestinian Authority toward Israel -- including the sniper murder of an 11-month-old baby girl who was shot while she played in her father's arms, the suicide bombing of a group of Israeli teen-agers at a bus stop, and random mortar fire into Israeli towns -- the Israelis are starting to retaliate.
Having endured an average of 30 incidents a day, aimed either at the Israeli Defense Forces or, quite commonly, at Israeli civilians (a mortar landed on a school near the Gaza strip. Fortunately, the students had not yet arrived), the Israeli army moved into Gaza to retaliate against Palestinian Authority targets. Israel has never made it a policy to target civilians. To the contrary, the IDF always issues warnings of impending violence so that civilians can take cover.
This past week was no exception. Having watched its children get blown up and assassinated and its soldiers shot at with everything from rifles to mortars (which, by the way, are not permitted to the Palestinians under the Oslo accords), the Israelis commenced a carefully calibrated response aimed at those with authority to control the terror. With the exquisite timing so typical of the State Department, Secretary of State Colin Powell picked this moment to issue a strong condemnation of Israel's response, calling it "excessive and disproportionate."
Worse, a "diplomatic source" told The Washington Post that Israel should avoid such "overreactions" in the future. "It rests in their hands, more than in the Palestinians', to control the level of escalation," he explained.
Where do we get people like this?
Let's review. Eight months ago, at Camp David, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to Yasser Arafat pretty much everything he has ever claimed (to Western audiences, anyway) to want. He offered an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem -- the Holy Places to be overseen by an international agency. The Palestinians, in return, would promise to live in peace with Israel. Arafat turned it all down.
Many friends of Israel think Barak was foolish and reckless to offer such a deal, but in fact he did it. It is now a part of the historical record that Arafat walked out and returned home to foment violence. As an influential Israeli dove, Amos Oz, wrote: "Ever since Camp David, the bitter picture is becoming clearer: While Barak's Israel (sought) peace, Arafat demanded justice. Arafat demanded exclusive Palestinian justice, according to which Palestine belongs to the Palestinians and Israel does, too. Justice according to which the Islamic holy places belong to Islam while the Jewish holy places are nothing but a forgery." (Arafat had expressed doubts that a Jewish temple ever stood in Jerusalem -- and an Arab mob trashed a Jewish religious shrine called Joseph's Tomb.)
Though he did not intend this, what Barak in effect accomplished at Camp David was to call Arafat's bluff. The result changes everything in the Middle East, or should. Today, the peace party in Israel has dwindled to tiny proportions, because even the most starry-eyed optimists can no longer deny the truth: The Palestinians are not now and never were serious about living side by side with Israel. The chimera of an "independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip" that so many Americans and others believed to be the solution to the conflict was offered and rejected.
Yet our State Department seems stuck on autopilot, wagging its finger at "both sides," and urging one and all to resume "bilateral security cooperation." This is meaningless. As a State Department official conceded to the Jerusalem Post, "A security meeting scheduled for (last) Monday night was canceled by the Palestinians prior to the mortar attack on Sderot (an Israeli village)," and no further meetings are actually in prospect.
It's time for the U.S. government to re-evaluate its position in the Middle East. We cannot go on pretending that a "process" is going to bring "peace." We have instead low-level warfare, which is awful, but will not improve by denial.