NEW YORK - The past half-year has seen more ups and downs in the Middle East peace process than a roller coaster. After an initial period of relative disengagement, George W. Bush's administration took a number of surprising initiatives that could have laid the groundwork for a resumption of political negotiations.
The fundamental political dynamic determining this administration's approach to the Middle East peace process underwent dramatic change as a consequence of Sept. 11. Because America needed to reach out to its Arab friends for their support of the war against terrorism that it was about to launch, Mr. Bush welcomed Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as partners in the new global anti-terrorism coalition that he was forming. Mr. Arafat had wisely decided to respond positively to President Bush's call for nations to declare themselves either "with us or against us" in this war. Mr. Arafat's immediate repudiation of Osama bin Laden's claim that he and Qaida were acting in support of the Palestinian cause was particularly appreciated by the Bush administration, and was rewarded with a presidential statement on Oct. 2 that America's vision of a future Middle East settlement included a state of "Palestine." It was the first time any American president used that term.
An even more elaborate and significant statement about where the United States is heading in the Middle East was made by Secretary of State Colin Powell shortly thereafter, in a speech in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 19. General Powell reiterated America's call for an end to Palestinian violence, and for the first time explicitly balanced that call with a demand for an end to Israel's occupation.
This was extraordinarily significant, in that it suggested some measure of equivalence between Palestinian violence in resisting the occupation and the violence entailed in Israel's occupation. Also, it countered Ariel Sharon's denial of the very existence of an Israeli occupation. (He wants the West Bank and Gaza called "contested" territories, not occupied territories.)
General Powell reiterated Mr. Bush's reference to a "state of Palestine," and inserted for the first time the qualifying adjective "viable." That qualification has come to mean not only a substantial return to the pre-1967 borders but also territorial contiguity.
These new American positions, unimaginable before Sept. 11, should have been seen by the Palestinians as a dramatic reversal of their fortunes. Instead, the Palestinian Authority's leadership engaged in a series of blunders which, in the damage they did to the Palestinian cause, could not have been more devastating had they been orchestrated by Prime Minister Sharon. It should have been clear to even a Palestinian 6-year-old that after Sept. 11 there was only one path open to the Palestinian Authority - shutting down Hamas and Islamic Jihad and building a partnership with the Bush administration that could only become more valuable to Mr. Bush if the United States decided to extend the war on terrorism to other Middle Eastern countries.
Instead, the Palestinian leadership made it appear that they were intent on toying with the American president and his emissaries.
On his first trip to the Middle East, General Anthony Zinni was greeted with a series of bloodcurdling suicide bombings, and his mission ended in humiliating failure. Despite this debacle, Washington decided to try once again. This time General Zinni was greeted with a Palestinian effort to smuggle a major shipment of arms into Palestine. They then absurdly insisted that they knew nothing about it.
One can understand a Palestinian determination to acquire arms for the war that Mr. Sharon has been waging against them. His outrage over Mr. Arafat's violation of provisions of the Oslo accords regarding the limitation on arms, when Mr. Sharon has been declaring to one and all that Oslo is dead, is hypocritical.
What is neither understandable nor forgivable is the mind-boggling stupidity of repeatedly humiliating President Bush's envoys at a time when he and the Department of State - in the face of strong domestic opposition from the U.S. Congress, not to speak of right-wing pro-Israel constituencies - were trying to fashion a policy that would overcome Mr. Sharon's persistent efforts to undercut the resumption of a political process. If the issue were Yasser Arafat himself, one could understand an American decision to walk away from this problem and to conclude that Mr. Arafat should be left to deal with the consequences of his own actions. But the issue is not Mr. Arafat. The issue is the Palestinian people and their subjugation by an Israeli military occupation that is now in its fourth decade.
The issue for the United States is also the dangerous instability that will continue and get worse because of a Palestinian determination not to live endlessly in conditions of hopelessness and despair.
There is no conceivable justification for the continuation of the occupation, or for the international community's tolerance of it.
Even granting the most serious charges against Mr. Arafat, and even assuming worst-case scenarios that some in Israel foresee if the West Bank and Gaza are returned to the Palestinians, it would take Israeli forces only a matter of hours to obliterate a weak and impoverished Palestinian state that permitted cross-border assaults into Israel.
Despite the Israel Defense Force's brutal retaliations against the Palestinians under its occupation, it has not used even a small fraction of the deadly power it possesses. It would feel free to use that power if Israel were attacked not by a people under its occupation and control but by a neighboring Arab state.
In all likelihood, these remarks will be seen by some Palestinian leaders as further evidence of abandonment even by those in the West who understand the essential justice of the Palestinian national struggle. They should understand that the worst betrayal is that of friends who protect them from the truth.
Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.