In the face of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's inability or unwillingness to restrain Hamas and Islamic Jihad - and even some of his own Fatah-affiliated forces which are now sponsoring Hamas-style suicide bombings - the Bush administration seems to have decided to "unleash" Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by removing restraints on Israeli retaliations against Palestinians it had previously insisted on.
To believe that this is a prescription for ending terrorism is folly. To the contrary, it is a prescription for the "Lebanonization" of the occupied territories and of Israel's own heartland. How much more blood needs to flow in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not to speak of Ramallah, Nablus and Gaza, before it finally registers with Israeli and US policymakers that efforts to end the violence that are based solely on revenge killings only inflame and accelerate terrorism?
There is a long line of shahids (suicides) waiting for the privilege of blowing themselves up for their cause. Each Israeli reprisal attack brings new cohorts of shahids into Hamas' ranks.
Large segments of the Israeli public continue to support Sharon's intention to continue on this self-destructive path only because they believe there is no alternative. But an alternative does exist, and always did. That alternative does not entail acquiescence to Palestinian terrorism.
But if revenge killings are the only Israeli response, then the country is on the road to eventual self-destruction. Palestinians, who have lived in misery and deprivation for more than half a century and have little to lose, will outlast Israelis who are accustomed to the comforts and per capita income of advanced Western societies.
If Israel's punishment of Palestinian terrorism is to serve as a deterrent rather than a provocation to greater terrorism, Israel must offer Palestinians a clear alternative to violence that leads not to vague "confidence-building," or a new "incrementalism," but to viable statehood.
For such an alternative to be credible, it must include an Israeli commitment to return to political negotiations as soon as terrorism abates, without imposing impossible conditions that Sharon has insisted on until now; an immediate halt to settlement construction and an acceptance of the principle of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to essentially the pre-1967 border.
To refuse to offer such an alternative to the Palestinians on the grounds that former prime minister Ehud Barak offered it two years ago and it was rejected by Arafat - which is the common objection one encounters in Israel - is entirely disingenuous. If the 1999 offer was based on Israel's recognition of Palestinian rights, these rights have not disappeared. If it was based on Israel's "generosity," it was not a serious or politically viable offer to begin with.
In the real world, Sharon's government will never offer an alternative to its policy of ever-escalating revenge killings. It is therefore the United States that should declare its vigorous support for such an alternative. To be sure, the US cannot make Israeli policy. But if the US is clear about what it believes is the right and necessary thing to do, Israel will eventually do it.
When US president Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, without equivocation, that the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, Great Britain and France was wrong and needed to be reversed, all three countries pulled out promptly. A great power, particularly one that has become the world's only great power, does not need to send planes and troops to make its point.
It is time for Washington to deal with the fundamentals of the conflict, and not to avoid them by focusing instead on so-called "confidence-building" strategies; that is a cop-out. The only way to build confidence is to give Palestinians reason to believe they can achieve their goal without resorting to violence. This requires far more than the US entertaining a "vision" of a "State of Palestine" in an indeterminate future. Without an explicit and credible non-violent alternative that would lead to statehood, the very term "confidence-building" is quite meaningless. What is it we expect Palestinians to have confidence in? Sharon's goodwill?
The US commitment to the Palestinians must be balanced with an equally clear commitment to Israel that if terrorist incursions continue across the new Palestinian state's border, the US will fully support the most severe Israeli countermeasures to eliminate that threat. As it is, Israel has a proven ability to stop cross-border aggression from all of its neighbors - Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - none of which prevents such incursions because of its affection for the Jewish state. Israel has a proven record of failure in suppressing what is essentially a civil war with a people under its own occupation.
Israel's insistence on a continuation of measures that have bred only increased terrorism in the past, in the belief that more of the same will somehow yield different results, is madness. The last thing the US should be doing is encouraging such madness.
Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations, and a former president of the American Jewish Congress.