For half a century, America has played a paradoxical role in the Middle East.
Its overriding interest has been to protect the flow of oil from the planet's biggest oil spigot. But it has become less dependent on that oil over the decades, even as it became - overall - more dependent on imported oil. Its policies in the region now do more to protect European and Asian oil needs, and aid Israel.
Washington has been slow to give up its failed policy of containing Iran, even though that nation (and Turkey) hold keys to protecting the future flow of oil from the rich fields around the Caspian Sea.
Two rationales account for US reluctance to change its boycott of Iran.
One is a decades-old habit of meddling to shape Iranian leadership. The aims have been sensible enough: to keep communism out, to protect the shah's modernization, to halt support for terrorism. But the execution has often been inept.
The second rationale, keeping a foe of Israel off balance, exceeds even Israel's own approach, which is not above probing for possible deals.
Egypt's foreign minister said last week, "There is a difference between American interests and Israeli interests" in the Mideast. That sounded like an emperor's-new-clothes moment of truth. It certainly expressed Egypt's frustration at trying to be both a leader in the Arab world and a friend (and $2.3 billion per year beneficiary) of the US.
Egypt's double role was golden while Yitzhak Rabin's Israel moved methodically toward peace with the Palestinians. It has become nearly untenable as current Prime Minister Netanyahu has all but halted that peace momentum.
But are Israel's interests really so different from those of the US?
If the former are represented by Mr. Netanyahu's aim of a greater Israel, incorporating much West Bank territory, the answer is yes. That way leads to danger for future generations of Israelis. But if Israel's interests are reflected in the tough but fair Rabin land-for-peace policies, those interests are more nearly parallel those of the US.
That's what US mediator Dennis Ross is presumably trying to urge on the beleaguered Netanyahu. That's what Israeli opinion polls consistently support. That's what President Clinton should not blink at hammering home when he sees Netanyahu in Washington Jan. 20. Peace is at stake.