WASHINGTON — For more than half a century the Middle East — along with Europe and Asia — has been one of the three zones strategically vital to the United States' national interest. Domination by a hostile power or the outbreak of a major conflict in any of these three zones would pose a forceful challenge to America's ability to maintain the global equilibrium on which international stability depends.
America stepped into the Middle East as British and French colonial domination receded. Gradually, the United States became the principal guarantor of the region's peace and also of stable access to the region's oil resources. In recent years the centrality of that role was underscored by the American military action against Iraq in the Persian Gulf war.
At the same time, the United States' commitment to assuring Israel's survival, motivated by a sense of moral obligation to a people that had suffered immeasurably, has built an ever closer American-Israeli relationship based on political and military collaboration. But given the intensity of Arab-Israeli hostility, that relationship has also inevitably collided with America's interest in preserving its influence over the Arab states.
Obviously, a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be best. But from the American standpoint, even an absence of war, provided the situation was stable, would be tolerable.
The current crisis poses a grave threat to United States interests. One can argue forever as to whether Yasir Arafat or Ariel Sharon is more responsible for its eruption. What is clear is that the two cannot reach peace together and neither can impose his version of it on the other.
Ultimately, the 4.8 million Jewish Israelis cannot permanently sustain the subjugation of 4.5 million Palestinians (1.2 million of whom are second-class Israeli citizens), while Israel's own democracy and sense of moral self-respect would be jeopardized by continuing to do so. The Palestinians have neither the power nor the international support to drive the Israelis into the sea, while their terror tactics are morally indefensible.
The Israeli sense of outrage at the suicide bombings is understandable. Any Israeli government would have had to react in the face of such provocation. But it is important to note that Mr. Sharon's retaliation over the last year has focused largely on undermining the existing Palestinian Authority, much in keeping with his decade-long opposition to the Oslo peace process and his promotion of colonial settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
With the Palestinian Authority in shambles, the Palestinians are likely to slide into a state of anarchy, with their leadership gravitating toward more extremist underground elements. In Israel, and especially among the Likud Party, more voices are likely to be heard advocating the expulsion of the Palestinians from the territories. Arab resentment at America's apparent partiality will rise, placing in greater jeopardy regimes that are viewed as friendly to the United States.
In these circumstances, America cannot ignore world public opinion. There is a nearly unanimous global consensus that United States policy has become one-sided and morally hypocritical, with clear displays of sympathy for Israeli victims of terrorist violence and relative indifference to the (much more numerous) Palestinian civilian casualties. At risk is America's ability to maintain international support for the war on terrorism, and especially for plans to deal with Saddam Hussein.
The United States response, therefore, has to be guided by a strategic awareness of all the interests involved, and not by the claims of any single party. The course followed in recent times, with its largely procedural emphasis on cease-fires and confidence-building measures while waiting for the parties to agree on their own, has become a prescription for procrastination.
It is now painfully evident that left to themselves, the Israelis and the Palestinians can only make war. Their suspicion of each other's motives and mutual hatred is too great to permit the needed compromise. Moreover, each side has powerful factions even more extremist than the current leadership, with Benjamin Netanyahu poised to challenge Ariel Sharon while some unknown Islamist militant steps into Yasir Arafat's shoes if he is killed in the current offensive.
President Bush's statement on the crisis on Thursday took an important step toward shedding the administration's ambiguous and, of late, somewhat incoherent posture. But it falters on three points.
First, by noting that an imminent agreement on a cease-fire was aborted by the bombing of March 27, Mr. Bush risks making the peace process again a hostage to any future terrorist act. Israel would be justified in retaliating against further Palestinian acts of terrorism, but reprisals should be aimed at actual perpetrators and not at destroying the Palestinian political structure. Second, Mr. Bush's highly personal condemnation of Yasir Arafat implies that the Palestinians should select their leader in keeping with American or even Israeli preferences. Third, the president's statement should have made clear that Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the Middle East is not to restart a process that focuses more on procedure than on substance. Secretary Powell should seek an Arab statement that categorically condemns suicide bombing even if it reserves the right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation and the settlements. Mr. Arafat could then issue such a statement without seeming to be bowing to American and Israeli dictates.
The United States must also now push forward with a specific peace plan. The point of departure for such a plan — based on United Nations resolutions, earlier settlement negotiations conducted at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 and the Saudi proposal for normalization of relations between Israel and Arab nations — is already in place. The United States should also indicate its willingness to deploy, with the consent both of Israel and of Palestine, a peacekeeping force to enhance security for both parties. NATO might also choose to participate in any such deployment, given Europe's interest in containing the Middle East crisis.
One should entertain no illusions that any such initiative would gain the immediate approval of either the Israelis or the Palestinians. But one should also not underestimate the leverage the United States has or the degree to which the people on both sides are eager to find a way out. Our own national interest and moral obligations demand that we do no less.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser from 1977 to 1981 and assisted President Jimmy Carter in negotiating the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.