For the last five weeks I have been traveling through the Middle East, meeting diplomats, officials, policy experts, military leaders, students and ordinary citizens. I learned something very important: the greatest single cause of anti-Americanism in the Middle East today is not the war in Iraq; more surprisingly, it is not even American support for Israel, per se. Rather, it is a widespread belief that the United States simply does not care about the rights or needs of the Palestinian people.
"The Palestinian issue is really what discredits the United States throughout the region," a senior Western diplomat with years of experience in the Middle East told me. Or, as one student after another put it after the university lectures I conducted across the region: "Why do Americans have to be so biased?"
In Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and other countries, the large majority of people I spoke with are ready to tolerate the Jewish state -- most even understand that the final boundaries of Israel will include some of the heavily settled areas beyond the pre-1967 borders. They also understand that few if any Palestinians will return to the homes they lost after the war that erupted when Israel declared its independence in 1948. And they are prepared to accept, though not to relish, America's close relations with Israel. Beyond that, they want increased American support for their domestic political reforms and for initiatives to enhance regional cooperation for economic growth and fighting terrorism.
But one thing sticks in their craw: Why doesn't America care more about the Palestinians' future?
They have a point. America's Middle East policy is unnecessarily zero-sum. We can be more pro-Palestinian without being less pro-Israeli. Indeed, to the degree that American policies help create support for compromise among Palestinians, pro-Palestinian initiatives can help Israel too.
Take compensation. United Nations resolutions call for financial compensation for Palestinians who cannot return to their family homes in Israel. Israel's position that it cannot accept millions of refugees and their descendants is reasonable enough, and the Bush administration's support of it is nothing new. But we should be equally clear about compensation.
Many questions need answering: where can Palestinians go to have their claims for lost property adjudicated and certified? What tribunal will hear these claims? What principles will guide its deliberations? Where will the money come from to pay the claims when peace is finally made?
The United States can and should take the lead in building an international consensus on the compensation issue and, working with allies in Europe and elsewhere, help raise money to ensure that it is more than a pious wish.
There is more we can do. Millions of Palestinians are now stateless. (Jordan has integrated the refugees within its borders; other countries have not.) When peace comes, all Palestinians should be citizens of some state with full economic and social rights. The new Palestinian state will need financial help to absorb many of these refugees; and neighboring states who agree to integrate Palestinians should also receive international aid.
In addition, while many Palestinians are well educated, many others are poor and lack skills. They depend on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for basic services and support. Who takes the agency's place when peace comes and the Palestinians aren't refugees anymore?
Taking the lead on these and other issues vital to the Palestinians would not bring quick progress toward peace in the region, nor would it undo overnight the consequences of decades of suspicion and resentment. But it would help to reduce anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and beyond, as well as to advance the cause of peace.
Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."