The credibility of the Clinton administration's foreign policy - never very high - is again at stake in the Middle East.
Back in January, President Clinton put forward a proposal designed to break a 10-month deadlock between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the intractable issue of the West Bank. The gist was that Israel would withdraw further from the West Bank in exchange for tougher Palestinian measures against Arab terrorists.
The proposal was eminently reasonable. The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are never going to get anywhere - the larger issue of Israeli-Arab relations is never going to get anywhere - unless Palestinians get some sort of greater authority over the West Bank and the Israelis get a stronger feeling of security against terrorist attacks. The Clinton proposals were modest first steps toward these goals.
Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, accepted the American package in April. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his usual delaying tactics, responding neither yes nor no.
On May 4, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, understandably exasperated and out of patience, invited both principals to Washington for further negotiations to begin May 11, thus giving only a week's notice. She also said the invitation was good only if both parties accepted the US proposal. Otherwise, she said, the US would "reexamine our approach to the peace process" - diplo-babble for "do something drastic" - and make public the points of US-Israeli disagreement.
The State Department has said this was not a threat, but it certainly sounded like one to everybody else. Setting a deadline only a week away looked like an ultimatum. And since Arafat had already accepted, Ms. Albright's target was clearly Mr. Netanyahu.
The deadline came and went without the response Albright had demanded of the Israelis and with no action by the State Department. Meanwhile, the White House was mending its fences with the American Jewish community whose members are heavy contributors to Democratic candidates.
The president wrote to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that "it is not our intention to second-guess Israeli decisions on security." (If one accepts that premise, then there is no point in negotiating, because Israel will unilaterally label anything it does not like as a security matter.)
The president added: "At no time have I given an ultimatum to either party [in the peace process]." (Maybe not, but his secretary of state certainly gave one and people are entitled to assume she speaks for the president.)
Now the Israeli-Palestinian talks have resumed, but without participation of the principals and with the studied absence of the Americans. Both in Europe and in the Arab world, diplomats are saying the US caved in the face of Israeli stubbornness and political pressures at home from the American Jewish community.
Unless this perception is corrected - and quickly - the consequences will be disastrous.
Such restraining influence as the US has had on both sides in this dispute will be weakened if not destroyed.
The Israelis will be reinforced in their belief that they can do anything and count on American support.
This may well embolden them to undertake new and riskier foreign adventures, deterred, if at all, only by domestic political pressures. (It should be noted that these pressures run both ways in Israel. Netanyahu's government holds only a 61 to 59 majority in the Knesset. It survived three no-confidence votes July 27 only because almost half the members abstained.)
Even worse for the US, American influence, not only among Palestinians but throughout the Arab world, will suffer another devastating blow. Given our record of unstinting support for Israel since 1948 and given Arab hostility to the Jewish state, it is remarkable that we have as much influence in Arab countries as we do. The Arabs will now be fortified in their long-held belief that the US government is a pawn of an imaginary Zionist conspiracy.
Non-Arabic Moslem countries (Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia) share many of these views and will react in much the same way.
Finally, in matters totally unrelated to the Middle East, the credibility of US diplomats will be weakened. Other countries will take it less seriously when they are warned that a given action will bring US displeasure.
It is a fundamental rule of diplomacy that if you make a threat you had better carry it out, because next time the other party will pay no attention. If you aren't prepared to carry out a threat, then don't make it. The greatest foreign policy asset a country has is the reputation that it means what it says. Without this, its diplomats can only engage in idle chatter.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.