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Views of the Middle East

At a recent Washington conference, two leading commentators discussed the reasons for the violence in the Middle East, ranging from Yasser Arafat to the Arab media to inconsistent American moral judgments.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Martin Indyk predicted a suicide bombing would be timed for Secretary Colin Powell's visit to Israel. Next day he was proved right when a woman blew herself up at a crowded market in Jerusalem (4-12).

A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Mr. Indyk said the terrorists will continue these attacks. "They still have the capability despite the draconian measures that the Israeli army has taken in the West Bank in the last ten days," he said. "This time they have an even greater incentive because they want to show that Sharon's massive offensive did not succeed in protecting Israeli civilians, and they want to show that even the mighty American superpower cannot stop them."

Mr. Indyk said the terrorists believe their tactics are working. So they have no incentive to change them. In their minds, a Palestinian state must be redeemed in blood and fire, not in pallid negotiations.

Yasser Arafat may be confined, said Mr. Indyk, but he considers himself the winner so far, and he is right. His popularity has surged so much that nobody would dare challenge him for leadership of the Palestinians: "The international community is now expressing its very strong support for the Palestinians, and Israel finds itself isolated," he said. "The EU is talking about sanctions, and there are strains in U.S.-Israel relations, all gains for Yasser Arafat. It is little wonder that with all hell breaking loose around him, Arafat is reported to be in a buoyant mood."

There is too much talk of Arafat, replied Shibley Telhami, professor of Middle East affairs at the University of Maryland. The issues at stake are far larger than the captive Palestinian leader.

He said Americans are somewhat misled because they do not see on television what Arabs are seeing. "Arab television today is showing pervasive pictures of horror on the West Bank and Gaza, calling this massacres and atrocities on a daily basis," he said. "They have live shows of tanks rolling over houses, of dead people scattered along the streets, of mothers calling live into the television broadcast, saying 'we are being massacred. Where are you, Arabs? Where are you, Arabs?'"

These sights have enflamed the Arab people as never before, said Professor Telhami. Freedom is the reason. Dozens of private TV channels carry news no longer controlled by governments. They are powerless to censor it, even if they wanted to. They must even listen to demands for their own overthrow because of their U.S. ties.

Professor Telhami said there is a new sense of empowerment at a public level. It is here to stay, and the world must deal with it. One way is to provide a balanced appraisal of the events Arabs are witnessing: "We tell the Palestinians we appreciate that you have a problem with the occupation, hardship, humiliation, that you need freedom," he said. "But nothing will justify your use of terrorism. We look at the Israelis and say the suicide bombings are horrible, and you have a right to respond. But we do not say that the scope and scale of the operations that hurt civilians is immoral. We have to take a consistently moral position."

Given the enormous influence of the media in the Arab world, says Professor Telhami moral consistency is also good policy.