As a new cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence flares in the Middle East, members of the foreign policy establishment in Washington are once again urging the administration to "do something" to bring the moribund peace process back to life. Abetted by the American media, which are transforming what is essentially a tribal conflict between Jews and Arabs into a global spectacle, politicians and pundits are proclaiming that "only the United States" can end the bloodshed and mediate another Arab-Israeli accord. This Pavlovian response, born of a Cold War mindset, suggests that vital U.S. interests will be harmed unless Washington defuses the "dangerous crisis."
Expectations are rising in Washington and the Middle East for U.S. intervention--for a new Kissinger-style "shuttle diplomacy" or another Camp David peace summit. The hope is for a dramatic American Moment in the Middle East, in which promises of more U.S. aid and diplomatic commitments will permit the American president to serve as a master of ceremonies and achieve another cease-fire. Until the next cycle of violence, that is.
What is missing from Washington's Middle East obsession is a willingness to ask, "Why?" Why is the United States investing so much time and energy trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? In fact, judging by the irresponsible behavior of both the Israeli leaders (who gave a green light to the provocative visit by Gen. Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and their Palestinian counterparts (who are coordinating the violence against Israeli troops) one gets the impression that there is much more concern in Washington about avoiding bloodshed and maintaining peace between Jews and Arabs than there is in either West or East Jerusalem.
Indeed, the inability of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman Yasser Arafat to bridge their differences, including over the status of Jerusalem, reflects their keen realization of the domestic political constraints in which they operate. Moreover, the escalation of violence should make it clear to outside parties that these two tribes (not unlike Hindus and Moslems in Kashmir, or Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo) are willing to fight, kill and die over issues they consider vital to their existence. Unless the persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict harms crucial U.S. national interests, Washington should allow the violence to run its course.
Notwithstanding all the warnings about the danger of a "widening Middle East war," what is now taking place in the region is a civil war between Jews and Arabs that will determine the borders and the demographic makeup of Israel and an independent Palestinian state. In other words, it is a parochial conflict similar to many others around the world.
While Egypt and other Arab states proclaim their solidarity with the Palestinians, they do not seem willing to go to war against Israel to defend the Palestinians. Nor are there any anti-American global players, such the former Soviet Union, trying to exploit the conflict. By contrast, it is possible that high-profile U.S. intervention could exacerbate the situation, boost terrorism, and lead to the formation of regional coalitions directed against Washington. That outcome would substantially raise the costs of a prolonged American Moment in the Middle East.