Violence in the Mideast is intensifying, and no one seems ready or able to do anything to stop it. As the death toll mounts, both sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict are hardening their positions. The U.S. now appears less inclined to intervene. It will take considerably more than rhetoric to end the violence. It is also unclear whether any of the key players has the political will to take the first step toward peace.

The killing of a 10-month-old Jewish girl in Hebron in the West Bank and renewed suicide bombings in Israel triggered a punitive response by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week. The initial target of Israeli helicopter gunships was the headquarters of the Palestinian Force-17 security force, which Israel blames for masterminding bombings during the six-month Palestinian uprising.

Israel apparently intends to carry out more attacks. Ominously, the Israeli government has changed its policy from one of retaliating against specific acts to “consistent and stable” warfare against terrorism. Stepping up Israeli military action will only worsen a conflict that seems to have no end.

To counter that threat, the Palestinian Authority has called for a United Nations observer force for the West Bank and Gaza to protect Palestinians. There has been little support for the proposal in the face of Israel’s stout opposition. Nonetheless, with Arab governments preparing to convene their own summit in Amman, Jordan, the Palestinians last week pushed a vote on the force through the U.N. Security Council. This resolution passed, but was vetoed by the U.S. on the ground that it would not be feasible without Israel’s agreement.

Political pressures forced the vote, and a veto was inevitable. Nonetheless, it did put the U.S. on record as blocking an attempt to end the killings. Coming on the heels of the Bush administration’s about-face on the global-warming pact, it capped an inauspicious week for U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. policy of distancing itself from the conflict makes some sense: There is little Washington can do if the two parties are not ready to make peace. Disengagement also appeals to an administration that worries about being over-extended. But influence is a wasting asset. If the U.S. does not try to flex its muscles, they will atrophy. Even if he does not want to be as intensely involved as his predecessor, President George W. Bush cannot afford to be aloof from events in the region.

That message seems to be sinking in. After last week’s attacks, Mr. Bush telephoned Mr. Sharon. The president said he understood Israel’s right to self-defense but expressed concern about the level of force deployed against Palestinian civilians. He was more forthright in his criticisms of Mr. Arafat, demanding that the Palestinian leader speak out “loud and clear” against the violence. Still, the rebuke of Israel is a retreat from the almost unqualified support the new administration has given the government in Tel Aviv.

The cycle of violence is intensifying. Last week’s suicide bombings could signal a return to the deadly fanaticism that marked earlier phases of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Arafat must speak out against the violence, and his government should make greater efforts to stop the terror. Israelis and Americans must also recognize that there are parts of the Palestinian community that Mr. Arafat does not control.

The chairman also won support from Arab leaders at the Arab summit that was held last week in Amman, but those same men — with a very few exceptions — have no interest in seeing the conflict escalate. Unrest among Palestinians could easily spill over into their countries. Jordan is especially vulnerable, but even Egypt could be threatened. Although they decry the unequivocal support the U.S. has given Israel, they also know that U.S. influence is needed to help fashion a solution to the violence. King Abdullah of Jordan will push the U.S. to play a more active role in the region when he visits Mr. Bush April 10.

Moral support is not enough, however. In its final communique, the Arab League called for the dispatch of the U.N observer force and voted to provide the Palestinian Authority with $240 million in aid over the next six months. The Israeli clampdown on the Palestinian territories has exacted a horrific toll; the Palestinian economy is dying. To its credit, the U.S. has pushed Mr. Sharon to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, but they could be restored with ease.

Inflicting more pain is not the way to peace in the Middle East. Taking away what little the Palestinians have has not stopped the violence. It has merely impressed upon them how little they have to lose. The sooner both sides realize that, the sooner there will be progress. The U.S. should help them see the light.

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