Renewed tension in the Holy Land means that, regardless of the current elections, Washington needs to recommit to something it has not mentioned since 1992: the need for all parties, including Israel, to adhere to the longstanding principle that giving up control of lands seized by the Israeli military in 1967 is necessary for any lasting peace.
Thus far the Clinton administration has notably abstained from making any mention of this principle - or any other principle related to the substance of a lasting peace accord. It has clung dogmatically and (as we have seen) harmfully to the idea that matters of substance in these negotiations should be addressed only in the bilateral talks between Israel and each of its neighbors.
Such an approach might be all right - if Washington were just a disinterested outsider. It is not. It is the clearly preeminent sponsor of the peace diplomacy (and this, for the good reason that Americans have strong interests throughout the broader Middle East). Washington is also the clearly preeminent outside backer of the state of Israel, according it vital generosity in all key spheres of public life.
The Clinton administration's abdication of responsibility for the outcome of the peace talks might still be all right - if the balance between Israel and its interlocutors were more even. But it is not.
Threatening a rollback
Israel, which lost 15 soldiers in the latest violence, openly threatens the Palestinians with tanks, helicopter gunships, continued economic strangulation, and a rollback of previous withdrawals. The Palestinians, who lost four times that number - nearly all of them civilians - can threaten only a return to the difficulties of the intifadah.
It was just this imbalance that, back in 1992-93, led the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to the involvement of Norwegian diplomats in the heart of the talks that led to the breakthrough Oslo agreement.
Now the parties need to engage in talks not just over the Jerusalem tunnel, Israel's belated withdrawal in Hebron, or other interim matters - but also over the "final-status" resolution of their conflict. Because the stakes are that much higher this time around, the US will have to become involved.
All of which makes it crucial now, more than ever, that President Clinton recommit his power to vigorous pursuit of the principle on which all of Washington's Arab-Israeli diplomacy has been built since 1967: the exchange of land for peace.
This is the principle on which previous Israeli governments built a workable peace with Egypt and Jordan. But now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly turned away from its implementation with Syria - and he has never accepted the validity of exchanging land for peace in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, his actions since he came to office show that he is trying to make any hope of establishing a viable Palestinian entity there quite unworkable.
Of course, for Washington merely to restate a commitment to "land for peace" is not enough. There must be a commitment, too, to using all means possible to bring about the speedy establishment on all fronts - but most urgently the Palestinian front - of such a peace. This means intense and substantive United States engagement, not just in the talks about the tunnel and Hebron, but also in the final-status talks which have so far gone nowhere.
Determining the future
These are the talks that will determine the future of Gaza, the West Bank (including Jerusalem), the Israeli settlers, and the Palestinian refugees. Will this be a future in which there is a viable allocation of land and resources to the Palestinians in return for a sustainable and hope-filled peace for Israel?
If speedy action by Washington shows that this outcome is still possible, then the diplomatic effort of the past five years can still bring a lasting return. If not, the region's future will be one of rapidly escalating violence and estrangement. The dreams of peace that most Arabs, Israelis, and their American friends have entertained over past years will all be dashed on these shoals.
Taking a first step
It is true that a recommitment of American power to vigorous pursuit of "land for peace" would mark a shift from what we have seen so far from the Clinton administration. Most probably, this cannot be achieved before election day.
But an introductory step can and should be taken now: a simple announcement from the White House that, in light of current concerns, the administration is reassessing all aspects of the peace process to date - and doing so in light of Washington's 29-year-long adherence to the principle of "land for peace."
*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.