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It has been two years since the Mideast peace process began to unravel, throwing Israel and the Palestinians into recurring bouts of violence. The cycle of bloodshed shows no signs of ending anytime soon, with Palestinians repeating terrorist assaults on Israeli citizens and Israel retaliating by military force. The whole situation is so complex that there are no clear prospects for a sustainable solution. But the fundamental cause of the conflict is clear: Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories in disregard of United Nations resolutions.

International attention is now riveted on the U.N. Security Council debate on a U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. There is no question that Iraq has repeatedly violated Security Council resolutions. But it is also true that Israel has frequently ignored various U.N. resolutions. The U.N. may be criticized as applying a “double standard” if it approves a war with Iraq on grounds of Iraqi violations while blinking at Israeli breaches.

Iraq must comply fully with Council resolutions related to weapons of mass destruction. Israel must also honor U.N. resolutions calling for withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territories. In August and September, the world body passed two more similar resolutions. The Israeli government should listen to international opinion and explore avenues to peace with the Palestinians.

During the third Mideast war in 1967, Israel occupied Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. After the end of the six-day conflict, the Security Council adopted Resolution 242 calling for a total Israeli withdrawal, but Israel ignored it. The council has since passed various resolutions, only to meet with flat rejections by the Israelis. So far, as many as 29 violations have been reported.

In recent months, Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas have come under strong international criticism, as have Palestinian bomb attacks. In late September, Israel sent tanks rumbling into Ramallah, the site of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s West Bank compound, and put him under house arrest for 10 days. The raid followed suicide bombings by a militant Palestinian group.

The Ramallah siege drew criticism from the United States as well, prompting President George W. Bush to urge an immediate pullout in a personal message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Mr. Bush finds himself in the awkward situation of feeling obliged to tolerate Mr. Sharon’s hardline strategy against the Palestinians, as the Israeli prime minister is using essentially the same antiterror rhetoric as the U.S. president.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Mr. Sharon, taking cues from the U.S. war on terror, defined the Palestinian Authority as an organization that supports terrorism. He has since refused to talk with Mr. Arafat and has put him in virtual confinement more than once. Mr. Sharon’s aim is to oust Mr. Arafat; during last month’s siege the Israeli government said it will give Mr. Arafat a “one-way ticket” if he decides to leave the occupied areas.

However, Mr. Sharon’s get-tough tactics appear to have backfired. Mr. Arafat has emerged stronger than before, having regained respect and trust among the Palestinians. As a result, Mr. Arafat has secured an agreement from the powerful Fatah central committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization to put off the reforms in the Palestinian Authority that have been demanded by Israel and the U.S. — reforms designed to dilute his power, such as creating the post of prime minister.

Mr. Arafat, whose political style has come under fire from Palestinians as well, seems to be trying to deflect the criticism by holding a presidential election next January. Chances are that he will win the election if it is held. The big question is how Israel and the U.S., both of whom want him to retire, would react if he is re-elected.

Meanwhile, as the conflict drags on, economic conditions among the Palestinians continue to worsen. Reports describe their plight as one of the most serious in the world, citing, among other things, a soaring number of underfed children. The danger is that the growing discontent among the Palestinians, unless addressed effectively, could become a hotbed of even more serious suicide terrorism.

It is no secret that Prime Minister Sharon is dead set against a full withdrawal from the occupied areas. But the failed peace talks of the past make it clear that there can be no permanent peace in the Middle East unless Israel returns its occupied territories to the Palestinians. It is time for Mr. Sharon to begin making realistic efforts for reconciliation, including a resumption of contacts with Mr. Arafat.

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