In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, its most determined advocates predictably claimed that the United States should proceed with her alleged mission of bringing democracy to the Middle East.  The advocates of this approach seek to push the Israeli-Palestinian issue into the background, to subordinate it to whatever their agenda may be in Syria and south Lebanon today, Libya or even Iran tomorrow.

A nonideological, “realist” alternative is needed.  It should proceed from the premise that the United States has real interests in the Middle East, that those interests make lasting peace and stability in the region desirable goals of U.S. foreign policy, and that the most important regional problem is that of Israel and Palestine.  This is one regional issue that America can and should try to help resolve.  Such an attempt should focus on the five key issues: the final borders of Israel and the future Palestinian state; the future of Jewish settlements in the territories; the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites; the allocation of water and other natural resources; and a long-term solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in lieu of “the right of return”—all within a realistic timetable.

For better or worse, only the United States can break the cycle of violence and encourage the leaders of both sides to take necessary risks.  At the same time, a determined effort may be jeopardized by domestic political pressures—another election campaign is only months away—and by predictable resistance from within the region, echoed by assorted lobbyists in Washington.

President Bush may prefer to wait until after November 2004 before he embarks on a new peace initiative in earnest, but he should resist the temptation.  The aftermath of the second Iraqi war has several advantages, including a degree of “shock and awe” among Palestinian and other Arab hard-liners, the related decline of Yasser Arafat’s influence and the rising empowerment of the new Palestinian prime minister, and the need for the United States to reach out to the Arab world in the moment of its humiliation and bitterness.

Only days before the fall of Baghdad, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Mr. Bush would push Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hard on a peace plan once the war is over.  President Bush says he is “personally committed” to a diplomatic “road map” toward peace and a Palestinian state within three years.

This is not the first time we have been told that, as soon as the current regional crisis is out of the way, the United States would seriously devote itself to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.  As always the obstacles are formidable.  The current basis for a new peace initiative, the so-called road map, is structurally flawed.  It was prepared by the “Quartet” (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan), who envisions provisional borders for the budding Palestinian polity by the end of this year and the resolution of the underlying disputes within three years, including the acceptance of Israel by Arab nations and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

The stated goals are praiseworthy as far as they go, but this plan leaves the borders of the future Palestinian state undefined.  In addition, it does not provide for the enforcement of deadlines for its three phases.  Finally, the principle of unanimity within the Quartet means—in the words of Israeli author Uri Avnery—that “the Americans have a veto, which means that Sharon has a veto; without his agreement, nothing can be decided.”

The obligations of the two parties under the road map are also imbalanced.  The Palestinians are expected to stop the Intifada, establish security cooperation with the Israelis, and recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security; the Israelis only need to give Palestinian officials freedom of movement, improve the humanitarian situation, stop attacks on civilians, and dismantle recently built “settlement outposts.”  Once these objectives are achieved, the Israeli army is to “withdraw progressively from areas occupied since September 28, 2000”—i.e., from the positions held before the present Intifada.  Only then may the next phase begin, in which the focus is on the “possible” creation of an independent Palestinian state with “provisional borders.”  After all that comes about, the Quartet may decide—unanimously—that the time has come for the third phase, the opening of negotiations aimed at a “permanent status agreement.”

There are numerous reasons why all of this may not work.  On the Arab side, President Bush faces deep mistrust.  (We can discount the rest of the “Quartet”; Washington is all that really matters.)  That mistrust transcends political, cultural, geographic, and economic divisions within the Arab world and cannot be overcome by soothing statements of intent.  As Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, a leading Egyptian “pro-Western” intellectual and former advisor to the late president Anwar al-Sadat says, never have America’s Arab friends felt so estranged from the United States: “[W]e feel that even a minimum of American even-handedness is missing.”  No Arab leader keen on political and even personal survival can afford to follow the road map as it stands.  He will need firm guarantees of its eventual point of arrival, including the borders and legal status of, and a firm timetable for, a Palestinian state.

On the Israeli side, President Bush faces the most intransigent government coalition in decades.  Its objectives are diametrically opposed to those of the Arabs.  The Sharon government does not want to evacuate the occupied territories and dismantle the settlements.  It accepts the concept of a road map but wants its eventual destination to remain as vaguely defined as possible and open to Israeli conditions and amendments.  Since the first draft of the road map was submitted to Israel and the Palestinians on September 14, 2002, Sharon and his government have sought important changes in its content.  Last April, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared that the road map should be “a precise or close match” to Mr. Bush’s June 24, 2002, speech.  The conditions outlined in that speech were stringent for the Arab side: immediate cessation of violence; the establishment of an authoritative yet accountable Palestinian leadership; and an overhaul of the Palestinian security apparatus.  In brief, the Israelis want a “performance-driven” plan, whereby their own concessions would be contingent on Palestinian ones.

In the short term, Mr. Sharon and his supporters in Washington will seek to rail-road the initiative into a series of incremental “confidence-building” measures subject to Israeli veto.  An early indicator came when Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee joined forces to stall the road map even before its official publication.

In the long run, however, it is hard to devise a rational model of Israel’s long-term survival based on the strategy of her present government.  Her security ultimately depends less on her ability to influence foreign countries’ policies than on the extent to which her legitimacy is accepted by her Arab neighbors.  The claim that no such acceptance will ever be possible is essentially ideological and should be reexamined with a view to the current state of Palestinian gloominess, the lack of alternative scenarios, and Israel’s objective inability to maintain an unstable status quo forever.

Israel has a developed but stagnant economy with a large state sector, a tiny territorial base, and a small, static population with an expanding minority of Arab-speakers.  Israel’s long-term choices are clear: She will have to evacuate all of the occupied territories, remove most settlements, and accept Palestinian statehood, or else she will have to “remove” the Arabs inhabiting those territories.

The latter option is not worthy of rational consideration.  Quite apart from practical difficulties, its immorality would fatally fracture Israel’s body politic and diminish her claim to legitimate existence.  It would be but a temporary victory in the spirit of Masada, with similar ultimate consequences.

The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, has survival on its mind and has accepted the road map as the only game in town.  Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a.  Abu Mazen, has been airing this view in meetings with the political factions of Palestinian society.  He wants to end violence (or “resistance,” as Palestinians call it) as a means of pressuring Prime Minister Sharon into withdrawing from the occupied territories.

In view of the pitfalls ahead, President Bush should look at the causes of the failure of the peace process that followed the first Gulf War.  Its major flaw was the assumption (or pretense) in Washington that both sides would eventually agree on the big picture only if they were induced to agree on a series of small steps dealing with procedural, symbolic, and technical issues.  Throughout the 1990’s, both sides manipulated symbolic gestures for short-term political ends without seeing them as the building blocks of a lasting solution.  If we are to avoid a repeat performance, a strong and dramatic gesture will be needed up front.

Only by tackling the unpleasant issues of Israeli settlements and Palestinian terrorism immediately and spelling out the means for ensuring compliance will President Bush avoid the impression that his road map will take us back to Oslo.  Secretary of State Powell has said that the United States would oppose any “circular discussion” between the parties: They “will have to start talking to one another from that road map.”  Such declared firm-ness should be accompanied by carrots and sticks, primarily monetary ones.  The intended destination of the revised road map should be outlined in general but not elaborated in detail: First, it should uphold the irrevocable right of Israel to exist in peace and security within her internationally recognized borders.  Second, it should include the founding of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, with the possibility of mutually agreed adjustments through land swaps and Jerusalem as a shared capital.  That state would cover the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, not just a series of enclaves with “attributes of sovereignty.”  Third, it should include a solution to the refugee crisis, based on the frank admission that “the right of return” does not exist for Palestinians any more than it does for the Sudeten Germans or Punjab’s Hindus.

This formula will not satisfy Israel’s demands for “peace with security” (read: strategically significant chunks of the occupied territories will remain occupied by the Israeli Defense Force forever).  It will not satisfy the Arabs’ demand for “peace with justice” (read: millions of Palestinians, most of them born outside Israel, will flood into the Jewish state, permanently alter its ethnic balance, and destroy its character).

By readily admitting that his “personal commitment” will leave the parties equally dissatisfied and that the art of the possible means that outsiders have to define the rules, President Bush will not make friends in either camp.  His calculus should be based on three key considerations of the American interest.

The first is the long overdue demystification of our relationship with Israel.  She is a small, foreign country, to which millions of Americans have links rooted in blood and sentiment, but she is no more “central” to the American experience than, say, Ireland, another small and friendly country beset by ethnic and religious rivalries with which further millions of Americans feel strong bonds of kinship and loyalty.  A second consideration demands acceptance of the condition that, in order to contain global terrorism, the U.S. strategy should be to avoid policies that feed Islamic militancy, including the perception of a permanent bias in Middle Eastern affairs that breeds generic anti-Americanism.  Finally, it must be acknowledged that American interests in the region are primarily economic, including permanent access to secure and affordable sources of energy.  Those interests demand a stable peace based on an evenhanded treatment of the conflicting parties’ claims and aspirations.

By incorporating these three principles in his decisionmaking, President Bush will be able to view the Arab-Israeli conflict within its true dimensions.  As Middle East-affairs specialist Leon Hadar puts it, this should be viewed as a “normal” national conflict.  Provided that the road map is suitably modified, the Quartet framework may provide the United States with a formula for “constructive disengagement” that does not require dramatic gestures or statements.

Only by becoming equally disliked by the warring parties can President Bush become an effective mediator.  His effectiveness will be measured, initially, by the cessation of Israeli settlement activity beyond the Green Line and of new Palestinian terrorist outrages.  In the long run, it will be measured by the willingness of the parties to get on with serious negotiations for the benefit of their communities rather than of the TV cameras.  When that happens, the road will open to America’s long-term disengagement from a region that matters far less to her security and well-being than we have been led to believe.