Last week, in one of the more memorable diplomatic scenes of the year, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia flew to the Crawford, Texas, home of President Bush to warn him of dire consequences if the United States did not rein in Israel. Then came news that the United States had brokered a deal ending the Israeli siege of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. That deal crossed a potentially momentous threshold by committing American (and British) personnel to the conflict: monitors who would oversee the detention of Palestinians whom the Israelis view as criminals and whom many Palestinians view as heroes.

Buoyed, the Saudi foreign minister promptly told a London-based Arab newspaper (Asharq Al-Awsat), "We now want international forces to protect the Palestinians and ensure security, along the lines of what was done in the Balkans." Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., said that the time might be right to send peacekeepers. America's small commitment, in other words, could be the template for a much larger one.

Step back and consider the events outlined above. Bush was hammered for months for disengagement and disarray in his policy toward the Middle East. He was warned that the whole region was teetering on the edge of an abyss, and that the Arab world's goodwill and stability would soon be irretrievably lost. When he brokered a deal by committing American personnel on a small scale, he was immediately told he should send in personnel on a large scale. There is a word for this kind of high-pressure sales pitch: a hustle.

There are moments that call for emergency action and a clear and unified government policy. The terrorist attack on America was such a moment. The current crisis in the Middle East is not. In the Middle East, now is the time for muddling through, extemporizing, and sowing a certain amount of constructive confusion. Now is the time to zig and zag. Now is the time, above all, not to be panicked by doomsayers.

The reason the administration has no clear, firm, and decisive Middle East policy is that none is to be had. At least, none is realistically to be had. Political negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be wonderful, but only if they stood a good chance of success. Despite the howls from Europe, Israel's recent West Bank incursions have in fact bettered the prospects for successful negotiations by demonstrating to Palestinian militants that violence is a high-cost, low-return strategy. Still, the idea of Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat getting down to business is fanciful. They have no earthly reason to trust each other.

Can American security guarantees bridge the gap? The two parties cannot resolve the conflict on their own, so how about if America, leading an international effort, imposes at least an interim settlement and then enforces it with international peacekeepers, as the Clinton administration finally did in the former Yugoslavia?

Even if you believe that America could get both sides to accept such a deal, the risks here are enormous—greater, I think, than the proponents have acknowledged. Israelis would never accept a United Nations peacekeeping force that did not include Americans. The day American and other foreign forces landed in Palestine, any militant with a dime's worth of sense would know exactly what to do: Test the peacekeepers by attacking Israel with suicide bombers, rockets, mortars, or whatever works. Something like that, recall, happened in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Palestinian militants exchanged blows with Israel over the heads of a United Nations peacekeeping force. (The U.N. force, by the way, is still there and has suffered 245 fatalities to date.)

If peacekeepers allowed Israel to respond militarily to strikes from Palestine, the war would be on again, this time with hapless peacekeepers diving for cover in the middle. On the other hand, if the peacekeepers restrained the Israelis, they would effectively shield the aggressors, as foreign forces ended up doing in Bosnia.

In any case, surely the only way to hold off an Israeli response would be for the peacekeepers to promise to hunt down the bombers themselves. If they kept that promise, they would turn the Israeli-Palestinian military conflict into an American-Palestinian military conflict—an outcome that Osama bin Laden would dearly love. More likely, they would squabble about what to do, taking halfhearted measures and creating an endless "coalition crisis." The militants would love that, too. After a while, Israel would get fed up and roll its tanks to the border, causing a diplomatic or even military showdown between Israel and the peacekeepers. By this point, the militants would be beside themselves with glee.

U.S. and Saudi pressure on Sharon and Arafat is worth trying, but it does not alter the fundamentals. Peacekeeping is unlikely to work until there is peace to keep, and peace will probably not be possible until: 1) Israel has shown it can effectively and sustainably fight Palestinian terrorism, 2) Sharon, having done that ugly but essential task, is booted out of office in favor of someone more flexible, and 3) Arafat is replaced by someone reliable and competent.

So what the United States needs to do is buy time. A good way to do so is by extemporizing without overextending. Intentionally or not (probably not), that is what the Bush administration's zigzag improvisation accomplishes. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plays good cop, and assorted so-called hard-liners in the administration play bad cop, each coming to the fore as the situation requires. That is not to say that the United States does, or should, engage in a cynical game. It is to say that tension in the administration serves a purpose, which is to preserve American options until conditions are ripe for a settlement.

But time has run out! Cataclysm looms! So said Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. So have said many others.

Maybe, but probably not. If the conflict drags on, the result is less likely to be an anti-American cataclysm than a return to the sort of U.S.-Arab relations that held sway for almost 50 years, between 1948 and 1993. The Arab world would go back to frosty relations (if any) with Israel and to sponsoring anti-Israel U.N. resolutions. The United Nations and Europe would go back to siding with the Arabs. The United States would go back to blocking the anti-Israel U.N. resolutions, generally supporting Israel, but sometimes restraining it, and always looking for ways to reduce tensions.

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