CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a beauty contest between two national leaders (thank goodness).
Rather, from the American perspective, what is happening in the Holy Land is a tragedy of proportions far broader than the momentary political fortunes of two particular individuals. In the Holy Land today, two traumatized national communities, each propelled more by raw emotions of fear, hurt, and anger than by any rationality or forethought, are acting in a way that keeps the cycle of violence between them spiraling toward ever-more deadly outcomes. That violence challenges both American interests, and deeply held American principles of compassion and fairness.
In addition to having our own huge interests in the region of which the Holy Land is a part, we Americans also have the luxury of not being engulfed by the tsunami of fear, anger, and hatred now sweeping over many Israelis and Palestinians. We and our national leaders can calmly understand two key facts about the present conflict:
First, neither Israelis nor Palestinians can obliterate the other's presence in the Holy Land through force. There is no military solution - for either side.
And therefore, second, these two peoples need to find a way to live together within the land that each claims - one that allows each side self-respect, and a haven in which to recover from traumas that stretch back decades.
Make no mistake: Through its continued and unquestioning support for Israel, the US is deeply implicated in the present violence, and that violence now threatens to spiral out of control at any moment. This makes it even more puzzling that the Bush administration seems, after a short period of half-hearted engagement, to have reverted to its earlier stance of trying to ignore the violence in the apparent hope that it will simply go away.
Sure, the Middle East has a lot of sand. But there is not enough sand in all the lands of Araby to cover the head of this ostrich of an American policy for very much longer. The ticking time-bomb of a major regional crisis could explode at any moment. And, yes - it would explode against many of our broader interests in the region, too.
So what might the president do? (At this point, it has to be the president himself who engages, though Secretary of State Colin Powell can ably assist him.) His first public action could be a major speech, in which he expresses to listeners in the Holy Land, and inside America, his deep sadness and concern about many aspects of the present situation in the Holy Land - the devastating loss of life in each community, about the trauma and fear prevailing in each community, the loss of hope in a negotiated settlement, and the continued recourse to acts of violence.
Expressing his genuine sympathy for the losses of both communities is not, however, nearly enough. The president also needs to spell out that the interests and principles of the United States are at stake in the Holy Land, and that he intends to work actively with Israeli and Palestinian partners in order to promote them. "Only a de-escalation of violence, and a negotiated settlement that is in line with our deeply held principles of fairness and nondiscrimination can provide the hope that both these beleaguered peoples need," he might say. " ... And the United States intends to pursue this de-escalation, and this negotiated settlement, with all the tools at its command."
Yes, the US has many such tools. The president need not spell them all out in that first speech. But the speech will need to be backed up with a battery of other diplomatic and political actions. The president might examine the Israeli government's policy of extra-judicial killings of individuals who it claims are connected with terrorist acts - and to see whether the use of American-made helicopter gunships in some of those killings contravened the Arms Export Control Act. He might convene a high-level discussion with European leaders about coordinating policies in the Holy Land. Or, launch a broad review of whether the huge amounts of American taxpayer money flowing there are continuing to serve America's interests.
Is there a danger that such an exertion of US leadership might backfire? Perhaps. But the risks of continued inaction are far, far greater. And there are small but encouraging signs that good sense and calm judgment have started to re-emerge from within the region.
In late July, 50 leading members of the twin Palestinian and Israeli "peace camps" issued an important joint statement that restated their commitment to, and the possibility of, a negotiated settlement between their peoples. These are people of substance in their own societies. Their declaration was the first significant joint action by the peaceniks since last fall, when the outbreak of the present violence seemed to throw both peace camps into disarray. It is an important sign that there are potential interlocutors for peace in the region. So, too, are the repeated declarations by Israeli Defense Minister Benyamin Ben- Eliezer that neither he nor anyone else can deliver a purely military solution to the Israelis' current problems.
But, as I said earlier, the problem in the Holy land is not about individual leaders. It is about principles, and also - for us, as Americans - about regionwide interests. Let's see our president step up to pursue them.