If American Middle East policy could be represented as an archeological dig, it would look something like this: the Zinni Mission would be resting atop the ruins of the Tenet Work Plan, which would be crushing the remains of the Mitchell Commission Report, which would be settled on remnants of the pillaged Sharm al Sheikh agreement, all of which would be weighing down the collapsed foundations of the shattered Oslo Accords.

If recent history is a reliable gauge, peacemaking produces more embarrassment than it does results, and only fosters the impression that the United States is helpless to have any meaningful impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Only three weeks into the life of the latest initiative, the Bush administration’s roadmap seems poised to join the historical ash heap. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to predict it. The contemptuousness of Hamas, the weakness of Abu Mazen, the brazen interference of Yasser Arafat and the raw hostility of the Palestinian street were all clear indicators of the impetuousness of any initiative that avoided dealing with the central issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the pan-Arab disinclination to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Unable to grasp this fundamental obstacle to peace, the Bush administration’s Middle East policy has now become hostage to the kind of unrealistic expectations that churned Clinton’s Middle East policies into mud and blinkered millions into believing that peace was just around the corner.

What is it then that caused the Bush administration to trundle down a road so ridden with pitfalls and cursed with the burned-out chasses of so many past vehicles of peace? It is, of course, a noble American tradition to campaign for peace between belligerents – harking back to the bold interventionism of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Such idealism has always been based on the notion that the United States, free of Europe’s historical baggage, could wield significant leverage in a world fraught with violence and conflict. Such slogans as “making the world safe for democracy” and the “new world order” gained currency and acceptance as distinctly American visions of a world in which violence and conflict would be contained.

But there are some violent conflicts in the world that simply do not lend themselves to resolution by either signatures or handshakes. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of them. That is because there are no tangible, realistic exchanges that can be made between the two sides that would guarantee lasting peace. No exchange of territory, no compensation to refugees, no guarantee of statehood will quell the insistent Palestinian demand for Israel’s extinction.

Such a wish is written in their covenant, broadcast daily in their newspaper editorials and promoted to their children in textbooks. It is contained in the speeches of their leaders and advertised on posters extolling the deeds of their homicide bombers. The voice of reason that George Bush hears in the moderate tone of Abu Mazen and considers representative of Palestinian aspirations is therefore an illusion. The real voice of the Palestinians, the voice that speaks to their deepest sentiments and nationalistic dreams, is the voice of Hamas.

As years of peace making in Europe once proved, the sine qua non for lasting peace is not the building of walls or the construction of national institutions of defense but mutual acceptance. Israel seems to have gone a long way toward accepting the Palestinian right to self-determination. Its prime-minister, for his own baffling reasons, has even accepted the eventuality of a Palestinian state.

But the absolute failure of Palestinian leaders to mouth anything other than meaningless platitudes about Israel’s right to live in peace and security while doing nothing to prevent Palestinian murder of Israeli citizens leaves the Bush administration with little choice. The futile quest for reconciliation should be replaced with a pragmatic assessment that any significant change in outlook among Palestinians – no matter what the Israelis do, say or agree to – is unlikely. Ultimately, the focus of the administration’s Middle East policy must shift from conflict resolution to conflict management.

What does this mean? Unequivocal support for the Israeli army’s campaign to crush the terrorist networks; compliance in the need to eliminate or exile their leaders; cooperation in smothering their sources of funding. But it also means that the United States must face up to the reality that only years of Palestinian re-education and re-orientation toward peaceful coexistence will bring about a lasting change in relations between Arabs and Jews. Such a reality check, given the conviction among most Americans that all problems have a solution, is a bitter pill to swallow.

But better to swallow the pill than to spend many more fruitless years pretending that ruined policies – all piled on top of one another – create anything more than an impression of powerlessness and failure.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.

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