As if That Fire Needed Fuel

Editorial

New York Times

March 16, 2006

Wouldn't it be nice if, just once, the players in the disaster movie that is Middle East politics didn't perform true to type? Unfortunately, the events in the Palestinian city of Jericho this week show that's a pretty far-fetched thought, so the conflict continues its never-ending run, fueled, this time, by Britain and America.

The list of misdeeds is, as usual, lengthy and widespread. The militant group Hamas should not have provoked Israel with chatter about freeing Ahmed Saadat, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is being held in the killing of Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli tourism minister, in 2001.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, should have thought hard before offering his support for such a boneheaded idea.

The acting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, should not have allowed the desire to do some election-season muscle-flexing to push him into storming the prison in Jericho with tanks, bulldozers and helicopters. Israeli Army officials ordered inmates to strip to their underwear, which many did, marching out with clothing on their heads, an embarrassing and completely unnecessary provocation that trampled the dignity of any Palestinian watching that spectacle.

Given the humiliations that ordinary Palestinians suffer merely by trying to get through Israeli checkpoints every day, the prison raid just reinforced the already degrading reality of living under foreign occupation.

Most to blame, however, are Britain and the United States, for withdrawing their prison monitors. They cited security concerns that British and American officials maintain have existed ever since a 2002 agreement established the conditions under which Mr. Saadat and five other Palestinian prisoners would be held. "Regrettably, the Palestinian Authority has never in the past four years met all its obligations under the Ramallah agreement, despite our repeated demands that they do so," the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said Tuesday.

That raises the question of why the United States and Britain waited until now to withdraw the monitors. This is an extremely tense time in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, with Hamas working to form a cabinet after its election triumph and Israel heading for elections on March 28. There's no way the British and Americans could not have known that their withdrawal would be tantamount to throwing a match into dry kindling.

Mr. Olmert may have secured a few security points for himself and his Kadima Party in their battle with Benjamin Netanyahu over who will be elected to succeed Ariel Sharon as Israel's prime minister. But it's a sure bet that even if his prison raid helps Mr. Olmert in the elections, it will make the job of governing and steering Israelis and Palestinians toward peace even harder after the election is done. For that, he can thank his friends in Britain and America.