IT'S NOT easy for a liberal and Democrat like me to say, but I am in awe of George Bush's courage, tenacity and skill in getting the Middle EAst enemies to the peace talks in Madrid.
Presidents before him have known that the Arab-Israeli conflict is contrary to American interests but, save for Jimmy Carter, have done little about it. Repeatedly during the Persian Gulf war, Bush faced the daunting prospect that U.S. military efforts would be torpedoed by an outbreak of Arab-Israeli fighting.
Now in putting U.S. power behind ending little wars (wars that risk becoming big ones) he has acknowledged that a volatile Middle East, waiting for its next explosion, imperils Americans as well as Arabs and Israelis. Bush sent Secretary of State James Baker to the region eight times to say Washington would no longer be a bystander to Arab-Israeli mayhem. But a widespread feeling of disbelief about U.S. resolve -- the harvest of years of wishy-washy policy -- remains. Neither side is likely to bargain seriously without the continued application of U.S. pressure.
For too many Arab leaders, permanent war serves as a distraction for the citizenry and an alibi for economic and social failure. It is a platform for pious posturing, an excuse for harsh authoritarianism.
The dilemma is more personal for the Israelis, who long have been the spoiled offspring of U.S. foreign policy. A relationship that began as mutually supportive when the Soviets were in the Middle East and America was bogged down in Vietnam turned into a federal entitlement program in which Israel receives more than $3 billion in aid every year along with unlimited access to U.S. arms.
What became of the quid pro quo? Washington winced yet stayed faithful to Israel when Israel annexed the Golan Heights, invaded Lebanon, brutally tried to crush the intifada, hired Jonathan Pollard to steal Pentagon secrets and carpeted the West Bank and Gaza with settlements. The Shamir regime demands $10 billion in loan guarantees to house Soviet immigrants, yet howls with indignation at the prospect of making compromises for peace.
Extremists, Arab and Israeli, share a vow to do the process in. But, significantly, Arab extremists are on the outside while the Israeli extremists are inside, seated at the table. Israel's American friends are lobbying Bush to go easy on Israel, but he understands better than they do that Israel's future is assured not by more wars but within a framework of peace.
Bush has traveled too far to give in to lobbying. It would be tragic if the Democrats, for partisan gain, were tempted to endorse Israeli intransigence. This could wreck the conference -- and drive liberal Bush-bashers like me into voting for the president in 1992.
Milton Viorst covers the Middle East for the New Yorker.