June 9, 2002

Where the Buck Stops


In May 1948 President Harry Truman faced one of the most excruciating decisions of his presidency: whether to extend U.S. recognition to a newly declared Jewish state in Palestine, a recognition that was sure to complicate U.S. interests in the Arab world. What made the decision even more difficult was the fact that the president's two smartest advisers disagreed, and were passionately pulling him in opposite directions. Mr. Truman's secretary of state, Gen. George C. Marshall, strongly opposed recognizing Israel. But the president's most trusted political adviser, Clark Clifford, argued forcefully in favor of creating a Jewish homeland.

After much deliberation, Mr. Truman, the president who kept a plaque reading "The Buck Stops Here" on his desk, realized that he could not rely on his advisers. He had to go with what was in his own gut. He opted to recognize Israel.

Today offers us a somewhat analogous moment, only now the issue is whether President Bush should help create a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. And this time the general-turned-secretary-of-state, Colin Powell, is in favor. The State Department argues that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital for turning back the anti-American tide in the Arab-Muslim world, for preparing the groundwork for any attack on Iraq and for securing Israel's long-term future. It is good policy and good politics, say Powell aides, because the vast majority of Americans and American Jews (no matter what so-called Jewish leaders say) want to see this conflict resolved, provided Israel is treated fairly.

And this time around the president's trusted political adviser, Karl Rove, and defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, are against any high-profile U.S. initiative, arguing that Yasir Arafat is just another terrorist, and that the real key to turning back anti-Americanism in the Middle East is changing the regime in Iraq. In a region where raw power is revered above all else, they argue, that's what would really secure U.S. strategic interests. It is good policy, they insist, and good politics, because Mr. Bush's Republican bases in the Christian and Jewish right don't want to see Israel pressured in any way to make a deal.

Mr. Bush signaled Friday that he intends to speak out on this issue as soon as he finishes his consultations with Arab and Israeli leaders. I hope he sides clearly with Mr. Powell. Mr. Bush and his aides are very good at smashing things, but so far they've shown little ability to build anything abroad because they don't want to get deeply involved anywhere for very long. A president should be prudent about foreign commitments. But diving in sometimes is the only way to create a stable status quo.

For months, Mr. Bush and Ariel Sharon have been looking for a stable status quo to emerge from the burning Mideast landscape. It is not going to happen. You will not get a stable status quo on the cheap. You will get it only by the U.S. president laying out a vision that restores hope and makes it very clear what we think the endgame should look like although the parties themselves will have to negotiate the details. That vision should include the rollback of most Israeli settlements; a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem by refugees returning to the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel; and a repartition of Jerusalem, with Jews controlling Jewish neighborhoods and Arabs controlling Arab ones.

But once we create that light, we need to construct a tunnel that will involve a serious transition phase, carefully monitored by the U.S., with clear performance requirements. As Aaron Miller, a senior State Department adviser, observed in a recent speech: In 1993, with the Oslo Accords, we created a tunnel of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but no consensus on the light at the end of it. Now, is the time for America to create both the light and a new tunnel, since the old one has been destroyed.

The right way to shrink, or eliminate, Mr. Arafat is for Palestinians to do it themselves, and the only way they are going to do it is if they see him standing in the way of a real opportunity. And if the Arabs don't like Mr. Sharon, they need to grow up, reach out to Israel and create a real incentive for Israelis to want to go around him.

This is Mr. Bush's Truman moment. He has a chance not only to give birth to the Palestinian state, but to do it in a way that wins Israel the recognition it really needs not from the U.S., but from all its neighbors.

The buck stops here.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company