In his State of the Union message, President Bush devoted only a single, lapidary sentence to the most nagging of all foreign policy dilemmas: "In the Middle East, we will continue to seek peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine." This was both appropriate and misleading. It was appropriate because the Bush Administration hasn't done very much to bring about peace in the Middle East; in fact, it has allowed a bad situation to grow worse. And it was misleading because a stronger Israel is very much embedded in the rationale for war with Iraq. It is a part of the argument that dare not speak its name, a fantasy quietly cherished by the neo-conservative faction in the Bush Administration and by many leaders of the American Jewish community.
The fantasy involves a domino theory. The destruction of Saddam's Iraq will not only remove an enemy of long-standing but will also change the basic power equation in the region. It will send a message to Syria and Iran about the perils of support for Islamic terrorists. It will send a message to the Palestinians too: Democratize and make peace on Israeli terms, or forget about a state of your own. In the wackiest scenario, it will lead to the collapse of the wobbly Hashemite monarchy in Jordan and the establishment of a Palestinian state on that nation's East Bank. No one in the government ever actually says these things publicly (although some American Jewish leaders do). Usually, the dream is expressed in the mildest possible terms: "I have high hopes that the removal of Saddam will strengthen our democratic allies in the region," Senator Joe Lieberman told me last week. He may be right. But there is also a chance that the exact opposite will happen, that war will nourish the Arab mirror fantasy: the fantasy of martyrdom, and a continuing romantic struggle that will only end when "Zionists and Crusaders" are once more expelled from the Holy Land.
In service of the neoconservative fantasy — and of the Likud government, which was handily re-elected last week — the Bush Administration has been dangerously out of touch in the Middle East. The standard term of art for what America should be doing is "engagement," a euphemism suggesting that we twist Ariel Sharon's arm. But effective diplomacy entails the twisting of all available arms, and Lieberman faults the White House for not pressuring the fatuous Europeans and deceitful Arabs "to get the Palestinian leadership to stop the terror." Indeed, the Middle East mess starts with the Arabs, with their state-fed spew of anti-Jewish hatred, with their funding of terrorism, with their unwillingness to recognize Israel's right to exist. Their intransigence has caused the hardening of Israel's heart. There was a moment last year, after the Saudis proposed a peace plan — the return of the occupied territories in return for recognition from the Arabs — when American pressure on the Arabs might have led to real Arab pressure on the Palestinians. But America had to be willing to sit on the Israelis as well, and the Bush Administration has been quite unwilling to do that.