The Holy Land is in crisis. Hard-liners in both the Palestinian and Israeli security communities threaten to undermine the civilian leaders who - if peace is to be restored - need to stay in charge. Opinion throughout the Arab world, including in the vital Gulf region, is inflamed at what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians. Israel's ever-volatile voters look set to elect irredentist bully-boy Ariel Sharon their next prime minister.
With massive instability now threatening the Middle East, all sides in Washington should work hard to underline the continuity of America's Arab-Israeli diplomacy, despite the coming change of administration.
On Jan. 7, however, President Clinton announced that the "bridging" proposals he has been working on with Israelis and Palestinians since late December were his own "personal" contribution, and would not be binding on his successor.
That announcement looked self-centered and tactically foolish.
It was also dead wrong, for two reasons. First, the content of the December proposals lay squarely in the mainstream of longstanding American formulas for Middle East peace - a mainstream that no successor president would (or could) step out of. And second, one assumes that someone in the Clinton team cleared the main outlines of the proposals with someone in the Bush team beforehand. Not doing so would be highly irresponsible, since even if Mr. Clinton nails down the entire peace agreement before Jan. 20 - a very iffy proposition - the implementation of any deal reached would need to be carried out by the next administration.
Continuity of American policy needs to be a mainstay of Washington's American diplomacy in the sensitive weeks ahead. But continuity on what basis?
On the basis, first, that the United States has its own strong interest in Middle East peace. (This is especially true in a time of uncertainty in world energy markets, and erosion of the alliance that contains Iraq.)
There are also strong continuities in the content of what Washington wants to see happen between Israelis and Palestinians. This is a conflict that can, and must, be ended. Israel should not end up ruling over the Palestinians of the occupied territories, but both peoples must have robust and viable forms of rule. Each side must recognize the legitimacy of the other. Legitimate security needs must be met. The longstanding demands of Palestinian refugees need to be addressed in some fair, viable, and final way. Unilateral actions or declarations should not determine the outcome - in Jerusalem, or any other occupied area.
Those principles have been staples of American policy since 1967. Along the way, the recognition has grown in America, as in Israel, that the best formula for the Palestinians is an independent state, rather than a return of Jordanian rule. Since 1988, Jordan has shared this assessment, too.
Clinton's December proposals embodied all those mainstream principles.
President-elect Bush surely cannot plan to repudiate them. And Clinton has shown notable (even if terribly belated) success in winning the support of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders for these broad principles of peace.
The only person currently close to exercising any political power, anywhere, who openly challenges these principles is Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon is a wily old bird, who unfortunately looks much better than Prime Minister Ehud Barak at maneuvering inside Israel's complex domestic politics. Now, as a result, it seems quite possible he will win the prime ministerial elections scheduled for Feb. 6.
Some Sharon apologists claim he has become a "wiser, gentler" figure than he was in 1982, when, as defense minister, he lied to his prime minister about his plans and took Israeli forces into a deep and costly entanglement in Lebanon. Those claims seem hollow. As recently as 1999, Sharon used the twilight weeks of the last Likud government to send squads of Israeli settlers to take over scores of additional West Bank hilltops, in an effort to increase the cost of any withdrawal Mr. Barak might choose to undertake.
Remember, too, Sharon's role in sparking the present violence through his provocative insistence on visiting the Temple Mount, last September.
Veteran Israeli peace activists have no illusions of a "wiser, gentler" Sharon, and neither should we. If he is elected, that will spell an immediate crisis for Washington's Middle East policy - one with implications spanning the entire region.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations need to prepare responsibly to deal with the looming prospect of this crisis.
An essential part of that preparation is to coordinate closely with each other - and to continue demonstrating adherence to the longstanding principles undergirding US policy in the Middle East.
If they don't, the transitions of the next month could soon spell turmoil for the entire Middle East.
Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society