By Robert Malley
The Washington Post
Coming atop the vicious suicide bombing in Haifa, threats on Yasser Arafat's life and disclosures of Iran's accelerating nuclear program, Israel's raid deep into Syria was just the latest symptom of an alarming trend: the systematic obliteration of virtually every rule, formal and informal, that has defined political behavior in the Middle East and of every barrier that sought to constrain it.
Borders -- whether physical, political or moral -- are giving way. Palestinian militants routinely strike pre-1967 Israel. They have erased any possible distinction between military and civilian targets. Israel has methodically destroyed the Palestinian Authority, sent troops into territory under the Palestinians' theoretical control and taken steps that condemn large numbers of its inhabitants to misery or worse. Targeted killing has become a matter of course, and Israel publicly considers the assassination of the Arab world's first and only democratically elected president. Even the fence now under construction is well on its way to becoming the first border in history that actually prevents separation, eliminating the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and, with it, of a sustainable two-state solution.
None of this should come as a surprise. With the collapse first of the Israeli-Syrian track and then of the Israeli-Palestinian track and the replacement of the familiar struggle for peace by an untested war on terrorism, regional actors are, more than at any time since the 1967 war, without a clear compass, rules of the road or referee. The road map, embraced by all but believed in by none, lacked clarity, realism and regional comprehensiveness. Israel has lost whatever hope it once held that its security could derive from understandings with its neighbors. Palestinians have lost hope that they will enjoy sovereignty over their land, and Syria has lost hope that it will recover its territory. All are acting accordingly, which is to say not very well.
In this political vacuum, the only effective constraining factor left is the threat of retribution. Hamas is worried that if it goes too far its leadership will be annihilated. Arafat would prefer not to be expelled or killed, and Israel frets that doing either to him would provoke an unparalleled wave of terror. Jerusalem is reluctant to escalate its fight with Syria out of concern that Damascus will unleash its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, whose military arsenal could reach far. Syria knows that Israel has the capacity to effortlessly wipe out both its army and regime. Iran wants a bomb to deter but is afraid it might also provoke. The Middle East is held together by a balance of fear.
Apprehension can be a fairly effective inhibitor, but only up to a point. Its limitations are clear: In an unregulated environment, with neither arbiter nor rules of the game, the only thing more dangerous than disregarding one's fears is displaying them. Every regional actor must show its willingness to go to the brink or else run the risk of being pushed into oblivion. In so doing, each is following a script written by it alone, and meanwhile doing its best to imagine where the red lines drawn by others are. Catastrophe is always just a single miscalculation away.
The reaction to such unprecedented uncertainty? From the Bush administration, unprecedented absence, best embodied by its peculiar threat to disengage from a peace process in which it had never truly engaged. Instead of providing the parties with a realistic sense of hope, the United States -- acting on the principle that so long as the situation remains as bad as it is, it will do nothing to improve it -- parrots their despair. Instead of giving them a palpable, concrete sense of direction, the United States -- periodically admonishing Israel to be mindful of the consequences of its actions while warning Syria and Iran of severe punishment if they continue to misbehave -- regurgitates their own tired threats. This is not the policy of a superpower but the sound of an echo chamber.
There is nothing wrong with pressure and intimidation, but they are not sufficient. The region's actors need to know from the United States what they stand to achieve if they take certain steps -- and it has to be more than simply avoiding the retribution that would follow if they did not. Through its actions in Iraq, its inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian front and its bullying rhetoric elsewhere, the administration has had a powerful hand in dismantling the Mideast order. It was, in truth, an unhealthy and hazardous one, with change long overdue. But unless the United States can quickly offer an ambitious blueprint for a new order that responds to the core concerns of the region's actors -- recognition and the end of terror for Israel, freedom and the end of occupation for the Palestinians, territory for Syria, a response to Iran's legitimate security concerns and a pathway to Iraqi sovereignty -- the old one will come to be sorely missed, not least by those who recklessly chose to undo it without a plan, vision or safety net.
The writer is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group in Washington. From 1998 to 2001, he was special adviser to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs.