Why the Mideast Crisis May Help Bush

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The October Surprise: It's usually a dramatic stroke the incumbents pull off in order to get a boost in a November election. This time, the October surprise is on Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

How does the line go? Genius is the ability to hold two contradictory things in the mind without going crazy.

Handling the present situation will require genius — the capacity to balance war and peace, strength and forbearance, revenge and forgiveness, Israel and Palestine. Is there a genius in the house? Or is the world going to go crazy?

Can it be that George W. Bush is the designated genius? No one has used the word on him before. On the other hand, to be parochial in the midst of a world crisis, my guess is that the crisis helps Bush politically. Why?

1) Americans may judge the Clinton administration harshly for its lack of energy policy — for a failure to promote energy conservation and for its misbegotten ideological refusal to develop domestic sources of energy, especially in Alaska. Americans may rediscover, the hard way, that oil does not gush from a hydrant down the block. Either you cut down on the use of oil, or you find alternative energy sources, or you drill for more oil on land you control. You don't rely on the good will of the Arab oil states.

2) The Iraqi A-Team factor. Dick Cheney at the White House, Colin Powell at the State Department, and former President George Bush on the phone to his son in the Oval Office may seem a more reassuring bet in such a crisis than the continuation of an outfit that failed to prepare for this day and was relentlessly bamboozled by Yasser Arafat, the man responsible, more than any other, for the dangerous mess.

But Clinton and Gore do command all the resources of incumbency. In any case, an American presidential election seems relatively unimportant in a world context that is, for the moment, abruptly changed. Arafat has succeeded in discrediting the peace process itself, an act of wanton perversity. The Palestinians had within their grasp the best settlement they will ever get — almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, the prospect of a shared Jerusalem. But perhaps in the Palestinian subconscious there remains a sense of injured honor that judges it must win back by force of arms land lost by force of arms in 1948 and 1967.

Is there anyone anywhere who would trust Yasser Arafat with anything? After all these years, after so much jet fuel burned in shuttle diplomacy, so many Camp David charades, Arafat and the Palestinians have defaulted to their primary rage. The "Nakba" remains always in the mind. The Nakba is Arabic for "the disaster," the Israeli victory and independence in 1948. One people's miracle is another people's Nakba.

Time moves backward when it is time to move on. The dynamics may change, these murderous passions may exhaust themselves. (It is hard to believe that anyone's sense of injured honor would be appeased by joining a lynch mob to commit the most primitive of murders. But victims feel themselves to be justified in anything that they do.) In any case, maybe peace will become possible again after this fire has blown itself out. If it does blow itself out.

Children throw stones. Mobs lynch. Fish gotta swim. It takes grownups to make peace. It is time for grownups to take the stones out of the hands of children, to get the mobs out of the streets, and the idea of a negotiated peace back in motion.

But who knows? Evil flourishes at moments like these. The air is filled with vicious dreams. Palestinians have a recurring dream that Israel will vanish; a lot of Israelis reciprocate the fantasy. It is time for everyone to wake up, before this thing hurtles off a cliff.