WASHINGTON - Since the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the dominant view in Washington has been that Israel's long-term security can best be achieved through a lasting peace with its neighbors.
But in the wake of Bill Clinton's failure to broker a peace deal in 2000, the attacks of Sept. 11 and a wave of terrorist bombings against Israelis, an opposite view is on the rise in Washington and getting a sympathetic hearing inside the Bush administration.
The argument goes like this: Peace is too much of a long shot at the moment, so American and Israeli interests are best served for now by setting aside efforts to achieve it and concentrating on fighting terrorism and confronting radical anti-Western states, starting with Iraq.
Continuing debate within the administration over which course should take priority helps explain the confusing and at times contradictory actions and statements by U.S. officials about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and particularly over Israel's current offensive in the West Bank to root out militants and isolate Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
How that debate is resolved will have a major impact on the U.S. role in trying to quell Israeli-Palestinian violence, America's relations with the Arab world and possibly on Israeli actions, because they are strongly influenced by what the U.S. government says.
In a sign that the internal discord continues, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday he was open to meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials during a coming trip to Europe, suggesting the administration may be moving toward deeper involvement.
Within the government, the hard-line policy is being pressed most forcefully by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's undersecretary for policy, Douglas J. Feith, administration officials say.
The policy also has been spearheaded by a number of influential conservative commentators with close ties to administration policy-makers, including Richard Perle, an adviser to Rumsfeld, and editor of Weekly Standard magazine.
Advocates believe that an American military victory over Iraq and installation of a Western-oriented government in Baghdad would deal a major blow to the extremist ideology that threatens Israel and the United States, forcing hostile states such as Syria and Iran into retreat and creating a better strategic environment for Arab-Israeli peace-making.
The Pentagon's civilian policy-makers are asserting more influence on Middle Eastern policy now than during previous administrations, when it was largely the domain of the State Department.
"They're putting forward ideas, and that's not traditionally been a role for the Pentagon in this conflict," said a State Department official. "The fact that they're in the room is something different."
For decades, ensuring Israel's preservation as a Jewish state has been a top priority of presidents and Congress and one that has traditionally enjoyed strong public support. It coincided with friendly relationships with Western-leaning Arab and Muslim states.
At the same time, U.S. officials pursued a goal of a comprehensive peace between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians based on the concept of Israel trading land for peace.
Peace remains a goal, but President Bush has refused to repeat Clinton's level of involvement. Because Clinton, despite strenuous efforts, failed to broker peace between Israel and either Syria or the Palestinians, the White House was skeptical that a similar effort by Bush would bring results.
Moreover, when Bush took office, violence was raging between Israelis and Palestinians and a new Israeli government, headed by Ariel Sharon, opposed giving up the amount of territory offered by his predecessor, Ehud Barak. The new administration refused to adopt the outlines of a peace deal proposed by Clinton. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on subduing the violence.
Events since Sept. 11 have reinforced the view among supporters of Israel and Washington conservatives that the United States and Israel need to concentrate on fighting extremist ideology that aims to destroy the Jewish state. This fits closely with the policy of Sharon, who has said he wants to postpone indefinitely a final agreement with the Palestinians.
"The same world view that brought us 9-11 is the world view that is seeking the destruction of the only democracy in the Mideast," said Josh Block, spokesman for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying group. He praised the administration's stance in backing Israel.