The US must use its influence to break the cycle of killing and retaliation in the Middle East
In a press conference following his recent meeting with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, George W. Bush expressed sympathy for the suffering of Palestinian "moms and dads".
The US president's sentiment was undoubtedly genuine. But it was vitiated by his unqualified support for Mr Sharon's refusal to offer Palestinians a political route to statehood as an alternative to their violent intifada.
To believe that Israeli counter-violence will end terrorism is folly. It is, instead, a prescription for the "Lebanonisation" 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 at last registers with Israeli and US policymakers that efforts to end the violence that are based solely on revenge killings only inflame and accelerate terrorism? Every Israeli reprisal attack brings new cohorts of recruits into Hamas's ranks.
Large parts of the Israeli public continue to support Mr 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. It is an alternative that does not entail acceptance of Palestinian terrorism. But if revenge killings are the only Israeli response, the country is on the road to self-destruction. Palestinians who have lived in misery and deprivation for more than half a century and have little to lose are likely to outlast Israelis who are accustomed to the comforts 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 to 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 the impossible conditions that Mr 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 borders.
A common argument circulating in Israel is that Mr Sharon should refuse to offer the Palestinians such an alternative on the grounds that Yassir Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority, rejected this proposal two years ago. This view is dis-ingenuous. If the 1999 offer was based on Israel's recognition of Palestinian rights, these rights have not disappeared. If the offer was based solely on Israel's "generosity", it was not a serious offer to begin with.
Of course, Mr Sharon's government will never offer an alternative to its policy of ever-escalating revenge killings. It is therefore the US that must declare its support for this initiative. 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 President Dwight 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 aircraft and troops to make its point.
It is time for Washington to deal with the fundamentals of the conflict and not avoid them by focusing instead on so-called "confidence-building" strategies; that is a cop-out.
Confidence can be built only if Palestinians are given a reason to believe they can achieve their goal of statehood without resorting to violence. This requires far more than for the US to entertain a "vision" of a state of Palestine in an indeterminate future.
Instead, Mr Bush must make it clear to both Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat that once violence abates, the US will insist on a resumption of final-status talks, the goal of which is the establishment of a Palestinian state east of the pre-1967 Israeli border. That principle does not preclude territorial adjustments, provided they are the result of negotiations, not unilateral actions.
The US commitment to the Palestinians should be balanced by 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 counter-measures to eliminate that threat. Israel has proved its ability to stop cross-border aggression from its neighbours without any outside help. But its most brutal reprisals have failed to suppress what is essentially a civil war with a people under its own occupation.
Mr Sharon's continuation of measures that have bred only increased terrorism in the past in the belief that more of the same will somehow yield better results is madness. The last thing the US should be doing is encouraging such insanity.
Henry Siegman is senior fellow and director of the US/Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations