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The cycle of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians is becoming ever more difficult to break. On Tuesday, just when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was meeting U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington, a Palestinian suicide bomb attack blew up a billiard hall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion, killing the bomber and 16 others and wounding more than 50 people.

Violence begets violence. Retaliation invites retaliation. The cycle must be broken if permanent peace is take hold. For now, however, the prospects are anything but reassuring. Tensions are rising again, with Prime Minister Sharon vowing to continue military operations in Palestinian-ruled territories.

The seemingly endless carnage threatens the nascent moves toward building a structure of peace, including a proposed Middle East peace conference this summer. The need to hold such a conference testifies to the fact that mediation by the United States alone is no longer sufficient to end the bloody cycle. What is needed is forceful intervention by the United Nations, including the dispatch of an international security force.

Tuesday’s suicide bombing, also denounced by the Palestinian Authority, is a shocking reminder that terrorism dies hard. In hindsight, the lull of more than three weeks that followed the last attack in central Jerusalem on April 12 — which coincided with a peace mission by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell — was a delusion.

The spell of calm led to a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Ramallah, where they had laid siege to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Sharon released Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from house arrest, apparently in the belief that his military campaign against Palestinian terrorists had nearly achieved its purpose.

Following the Israeli pullout, officials from the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia, meeting in Washington earlier this month, agreed to hold a Mideast peace conference from June to July. At the same time, Israeli troops were preparing for a withdrawal from Bethlehem as well by ending the standoff at the Church of the Nativity where more than 100 Palestinians, including hardcore militants, had been trapped.

The latest flareup is a serious blow to the budding peace moves now under way. It will also further damage Mr. Arafat’s credentials as a peace negotiator, though responsibility for the bombing was claimed by the extremist Hamas group. In his meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon reportedly insisted that the Palestinian leader was not a fitting partner for peace.

President Bush, it is reported, expressed disappointment in Mr. Arafat, but said Washington will treat him as the representative of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, Mr. Arafat appears to have little chance of attending the proposed peace conference, given the U.S. position that it should be held at the “ministerial level” — a position that reflects an Israeli determination to keep him out of any peace negotiations. Without Mr. Arafat, however, the conference would have little chance of success.

Mr. Sharon’s peace plan, if it can be called that, is untenable. It calls for concluding a security agreement with the Palestinians without setting the borders of a future Palestinian state. Although the prime minister is not opposed to Palestinian statehood, he sees it as something to be negotiated in the future. What he is seeking now is a provisional agreement that would give Israel everything it wants, leaving what it may be willing to give to future negotiations. Such a plan cannot serve as a viable starter for peace negotiations.

European nations and others have a strong case to make: A definite timetable for constructing a Palestinian state is an essential condition for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Indeed, permanent peace in the Middle East must rest on a practicable program of national construction for the Palestinians that ensures peaceful coexistence with Israel.

First and foremost, though, the two sides must end the bloodshed once and for all. Perhaps the only way to secure full compliance with a ceasefire would be to send in a U.N.-led security force, an idea proposed by Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Security Council should consider the proposal immediately and give it a green light.

The U.S. has its work cut out: persuading Israel to accept U.N. troops. What is urgently required of Israel is self-restraint on military action against Palestinians, just as a halt to terrorist attacks is required on the Palestinian side. Only when a solid ceasefire is put in place can the international community begin to make concerted efforts toward an effective settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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