GEORGE BUSH met the ongoing Middle East crisis head on when he told Congress and millions of watching Americans last week that the Gulf war illustrated that ``geography cannot guarantee security.'' Those words furrowed brows in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir drew just the opposite lesson from the war - that a geographic buffer (read the West Bank) was more important than ever. Sunday he declared that there could be no territorial compromise with Syria concerning the Golan Heights.
Israel's argument for greater ``strategic depth'' has a clear military logic. But military concerns can't be the only criteria if lasting peace is the goal. Well-crafted political agreements can be more reassuring than a few extra miles of territory, as the accords between Egypt and Israel showed.
Any future agreements will demand a degree of flexibility by Israel concerning the lands it captured from Jordan and Syria 24 years ago. By explicitly referring to United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, which link the return of occupied lands to the formal recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbors and call for direct talks between the two sides, Bush served notice that he's thinking in terms of land for peace even if Mr. Shamir isn't.
He also gave some encouragement, at least, to many in the Middle East who have wondered whether the United States would ever give the UN resolutions on the Arab-Israel dispute the same emphasis it gave those dealing with the Gulf crisis.
Peace, of course, must be a two-way proposition. Arab countries must be willing to step away from the reflexive hostility toward Israel that has characterized their politics for nearly a half century.
The rights of Palestinians, another crucial theme Bush touched on, can best be served by firmly restarting the peace process. Palestinians themselves face a tough choice between plunging back into radicalism or strengthening recent trends toward pragmatic politics.
The murder, in Jerusalem, of four Israelis by a Palestinian who claimed he was sending a message to visiting US Secretary of State James Baker, shows that hatred and terrorism remain imbedded.
The political molds that constrain all sides in the Middle East from taking concrete steps toward peace can be broken. Israel's decision not to retaliate against Iraqi Scuds was a recent example. Few would have anticipated such restraint from a country that has sworn it will never be struck without striking back.
We hope for other evidence of mold-breaking as the US peace initiative advances.