Moments of Truth

On Sunday, with crews still collecting body parts and shredded flesh after three horrific explosions in Israel, Secretary of State Colin Powell said it is the “moment of truth” for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He was wrong; that moment has come and gone numerous times, and Arafat has consistently failed the test.

In fact, the moment of truth has come for three other parties: a Bush administration that has yet to back up tough words to Arafat with tough actions; an Israeli government with plenty of backbone but not much vision; and American Jews, who badly want peace but may be inadvertently erecting barriers to getting there.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the tests facing each in the critical days ahead.

The United States

After the first round of attacks, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said that “Israel is a sovereign government. Israel will make decisions about how it will protect its security, and Israel has a right to live in security.”

That was a far cry from the usual bland denunciations of the “cycle of violence” and demands for Israeli restraint in the face of terror attacks.

Punctuating the point, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used the strongest language yet in complaining about Arafat.

“We know that he is not a particularly strong leader,” he said. “And I don’t know that he has good control over the Palestinian situation. He hasnot ever delivered anything for the Palestinian people throughout history

Also this week, the administration froze the assets of several Islamic groups accused of funneling money to Hamas, the terrorist group that claimed credit for bombings that killed 26 Israelis in Jerusalem and Haifa.

The primary action targets the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which says it raises more than $13 million a year for things like hot meals in Gaza — but which critics insist supports the terrorist cause. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group provides stipends to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

But the U.S. green light for Israeli reprisals, signaled with clarity at Sunday’s hurried White House meeting between President George W. Bush and the Israeli leader and echoed at the State Department, is far from open ended.

“The first test will come when the Saudis or the Egyptians put real pressure on the administration,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a leading member of the Jewish delegation in the House. “The U.S. has to take a very strong stance with these countries when that happens.”

Lawmakers who are frustrated with Saudi equivocation on the anti-terror war and fed up with Arafat, Cardin said, will provide a counterweight to diplomatic pressure on the administration from Israel’s foes.

The Israeli Government

Ariel Sharon was elected on his promise to provide security, but the violence has escalated wildly since he took office.

Objectively, that’s hard to blame on the crusty old general. Arafat spit in the eye of the generous, hopeful Ehud Barak, and he is defying the hawkish Sharon.

But what the prime minister has failed to do, is offer any kind of realistic vision of how to get out of the current crisis and back into negotiations about a political settlement. His territorial bottom-line is far less than any Palestinian leader is likely to accept.

He gives the impression that his only real strategy is to cling to the current status quo and hope the Palestinians get tired of providing new martyrs.

But the past year suggests that is unlikely to happen. And it is unlikely to give Israelis the confidence they need for a time in which hope is an endangered species.

It also won’t ward off the political advance of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose appeal grows as frustration and anger mount in a nation under siege.

Israel badly needs a vision of a future that doesn’t involve endless violence by ever-bolder and better equipped terrorists.

The American Jewish Community

Crises are great unifiers. Jews here are frightened and confused by the current situation, but they are more united than ever behind Israel.

What’s lacking is support for a creative, assertive U.S. role in finding some way out of the deadly quicksand.

Jewish groups, galvanized around Israel’s immediate needs, seem to focus on a single demand when it comes to U.S. policy: don’t pressure Israel.

But with pro-Israel groups dominated by hawks, what that often translates into is this: don’t do anything except support the most hardline positions in Jerusalem.

The Jewish community has created huge political disincentives for the administration to act boldly in a situation that is plainly out of control, and in which old diplomatic formulas have proven woefully ineffective.

The administration has displayed a sophisticated understanding of the roots of the current problem, and of Arafat’s responsibility for pushing the region to the brink. President Bush and his team might be better positioned to craft a new, outside-the-box U.S. initiative than their predecessors, who turned a blind eye to each new outrage by Arafat.

But a pro-Israel community that bitterly resists any new U.S. involvement makes that much less likely to happen — with potentially huge costs to the beset Israeli people.