By William Pfaff

Revolutions are known for devouring their children, but the people making the current revolution in the Middle East may prove indigestible. In greater danger are the Israelis. As for the United States, it faces a choice between jettisoning its traditional policy of supporting Arab dictators, or repositioning itself -- which is a paralyzing situation to be in.

Most American commentators and advisors will probably favor the latter: support for the anti-dictators, with the misconceived expectation of eventually controlling them. That choice is likely to put the Israeli-American relationship in jeopardy, with heavy domestic consequences.

Finally, but scarcely conceivable, the U.S. could choose radical change: cease its Middle East political interventions; buy its energy on the open market, where it is readily available; and encourage Israel to adopt an equally radical new security policy of making peace with the Arabs.

After the 1948 war, Israel had no choice but to consider itself permanently surrounded by enemies. Its security response was predictable. With an eventual alliance with the U.S., its security seemed assured. It then chose not to make peace with the Palestinian Arabs but to expand Israel territorially through the settlements, with the intention -- articulated by few, but implicitly endorsed by many -- to reconstitute the biblical land of Israel, in which there would be no room for free Palestinians.

This is no longer a feasible policy. The democratic Middle East to which those who have been responsible for the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt aspire, and which is the goal of the as yet unachieved revolts elsewhere, is not likely to emerge fully for a very long time, and will first undergo many obstacles and trials.

Such was the course of the so-called "springtime of nations" in Europe, following the revolutions of 1848. It took until the end of the century for most of the desired reforms to be achieved, together with national unification for Italy and the individual German principalities, and a seeming resolution of the internal tensions of the Hapsburg Empire, which nonetheless collapsed in World War I.

The long-sought "Arab Nation" to replace the reign of the Ottomans has yet to come, and may even no longer be wanted. But the Egyptians and the Arabs have shown that they no longer will be an abject and abused people.

It is crucial above all to Israel to understand this.

For six decades Israel has felt compelled to survive by military intimidation and American patronage. Now it has a chance to live peacefully. Israel needs, but does not have, a Charles DeGaulle who will unilaterally end the settlements, withdraw to Israel's legal frontiers, offer justice to the Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 and propose peace settlements to its neighbors. Benjamin Netanyahu bears no resemblance to DeGaulle, but neither did F.W. De Klerk in South Africa, nor Anwar al-Sadat when he flew to Jerusalem in 1977.

But there are other leaders, or potential leaders, in Israel.

Finally there is the U.S., arrogantly astride the region until now, but proven incapable in the Egyptian crisis to decide whether it wanted to go forward or backward. The administration actually wanted to be in between: simultaneous champion of democracy and defender of things-as-they-are (or as they were), an absurd position in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the ambiguous Mr. Wisner said "Whoa," so as to appease old friends like Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi monarchy and older interests, like oil access, while President Obama shouted "Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!" -- in order to catch up with the revolutionaries.

American policy is now inevitably trying to back each side, so far as is possible, so as not to be thought to be doing the opposite. Emissaries and ambassadors and agents will be trying to befriend the newly powerful, or potentially powerful, in the revolutionary states, so as to win influence with them, while other American representatives try to assure the monarchies of Arabia and the Gulf that they will be safe.

It is too late for ex-President Mubarak. Others, including in Israel, should read the lucid Machiavelli: "A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons that made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as men are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them."

There is, in my opinion, only one prudent American policy: not to interfere, or attempt to control, what now is happening in the Arab states. Inconspicuously withdraw American military forces to the maximum extent possible, and order those remaining to abstain from any political action. Put the Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism and Iranian nuclear issues in cold storage; allow no government official, other than the White House spokesman, to comment on any of the four.

Avoid engagement. Let the people in the region do what they want. The U.S. cannot then be blamed for what happens. Deal courteously and, if possible, helpfully, with whatever new governments emerge, but allow them to determine what relationship they want with the U.S. Remember that oil and gas are commodities sold on a free market.

Make only one exception to the rule of non-intervention: Urgently advise Israel to follow the advice given above to exploit this -- probably fleeting -- opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians, and with Israel's Arab neighbors.


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