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.
There are moral, ideological and political arguments for Bush's reluctance to "engage." The moral argument is simple, strong and simplistic: Yasser Arafat is an evildoer who has never intended to make peace. He winks at terrorism; he tries to purchase arms from the Iranians. He flirts with peace, then flees. The ideological argument has the subtlety of a punch in the nose: it is based in the Sharon-Likud conceit that Arabs "only understand" strength. This has a certain resonance with tough guys like Rumsfeld and Cheney. America's Likudnik tilt has empowered the Sharon government to preside over a dramatic increase in illegal that is, unapproved West Bank settlements: 70 new outposts in Palestinian areas, many of them tended by religious extremists. Palestinians regard these settlements about the same way as Israelis do suicide bombers. As for the political argument, well, it's ... Florida. Specifically, Palm Beach County, where the Karl Roveian hope is that all those perplexed elderly Jewish Pat Buchanan voters will butterfly over to the Republican column in 2004. "The President's policy has earned him wide respect in the Jewish community," a religious leader told me.
The maddening thing is, the outlines of a Middle East peace are obvious: Israelis abandon most of the settlements; Palestinians abandon the right of return. A neighborhood in East Jerusalem is declared the capital of Palestine; the religious sites are put under international jurisdiction. Vast majorities of Jews and Arabs support this deal. The notion that war will somehow speed along a better one assumes the Palestinians will somehow change their minds about real statehood. They won't. The only other alternative for Israel is more of the same: more violence, a collapsing economy, a larger and ever more vehement Arab population. George W. Bush should make that clear before he takes another step toward war.