The visit paid to Temple Mount by Gen. Ariel Sharon was widely interpreted as the flash point that brought on the apparent end of the peace process in the Middle East. Those who nurture isolationist fantasies should reflect on the repercussions.
Palestinian "youth" were enraged and expressed themselves as youth do in that part of the world: They began to throw stones at Israelis. The Israelis counterattacked. Counterattacks are almost always more severe than what provoked them, understandably so. There is the further factor that the Israelis are a modern military force, the Palestinians much less than that.
The prestige of the United States is immediately on the line, this because President Clinton was the godfather of the aborted Camp David meeting of three months ago. At that spectacular exchange, Prime Minister Barak of Israel offered what some people call 90 percent of the occupied territories. Arafat wanted 100 percent, plus sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Then after the post-Sharon explosions, Mr. Clinton offered to go to Cairo and sit down with Arafat and Barak and try to begin anew. That offer was spurned.
The impact of the rejection is palpable. To say just that -- "No" -- to a proffered meeting with the president of the United States fires mutinous juices, and Pan-Arabia lights up.
A U.S. destroyer in Yemen is bombed in a suicide attack by a harbor boat, causing extensive damage. It is a terrorist's attack, and speculation is reasonable that it is a thrust of reanimated anti-Americanism. Whether an expression of Saddam Hussein's cloistered malevolence, or an extension of the stone-throwing animus of the Palestinians, we do not know, and should not particularly care. The point is, Sumus Romani -- We Are Romans -- isn't working. And the effect of it is that the day of the terrorist is renewed, and every U.S. citizen in the area -- and Yemen is about as far away as you can get from Jerusalem in the Arab world -- is threatened.
The Israel theater conflagration rises to a new intensity. It is pithily expressed by the two leaders. Barak says that the peace process is ended. Arafat says his people must renew their determination to recover their territories and establish their headquarters in Jerusalem.
The price of oil shoots up by 8 percent. The market plunges by 379 points. There is commentary out there to the effect that the regional explosion could mean the end of the American boom, as consumers steel themselves for the austerities of high-cost oil.
Our NATO partners survey the scene and, led by France, start asking themselves: Is America's backing of Israel not better seen, in the light of hardening developments and consolidated obduracies, as a sentimental anachronism? Yes, by all means, encourage the survival of Israel, but the costs of achieving that are too extravagant. France knows a great deal about appeasement. And Germany has no appetite whatever for antagonizing the sheik-world.
The scene intrudes directly on the American scene. A given -- unchangeable, and under no pressure to change -- is the commitment to Israeli independence. That means no temporizing will be done by either of the two candidates. But other aspects of the disruption can have an effect. If the market's plunge foretells a strategic economic pessimism, evidence of that could be manifest before the election.
Some speculate that this would play into the hands of the incumbent: Don't mess with difficult situations in mid-crisis. More likely, this would translate into increased votes for Bush, on the grounds that, without having to opine on this Camp David or that Oslo or that Temple Mount, the diplomatic challenge for the superpower is to keep such things from happening, to the point of upsetting the whole bloody world! and cutting the value of my market investment by 30 percent!! Aaargh!!! Wouldn't Bush get the Aaargh vote?
What the president can't really do at this juncture is to allocate blame. There are those who say compellingly that we are heading for wartime because we did not enforce dove-time. Such analysts believe that those who wanted the peace process to work should have been ruthless about enforcing its specific terms and pre-empting provocations. The Palestinians, where possible, should have been restrained and punished -- by the Palestinians. Gen. Sharon should have been told by Barak: Stay the hell away from Temple Mount for a month or two. The Hezbollah should have been publicly repudiated by Arafat for the desecration of Joseph's Tomb.
Persuasive injunctions, but not, at this point, very useful. When at the U.N. Security Council meeting one member argued that a litany of Israeli offenses should be accompanied by a litany of Palestinian offenses, the fruitlessness of that pursuit became evident. So that now, people are asking less, Who was primarily at fault? than, Where do we go from here?