Absorbed by the demands of organizing a new Administration, George Bush may not have noticed the dark cloud that blew in over the Middle East a few weeks ago, begging some show of urgency of a President who has refused to be hurried.
The cloud blew in from Paris, where 150 nations met to consider proposals for reducing the dangers of the apparent spread of chemical and, perhaps, biological weapons.
To the surprise of the major powers, the meeting turned out to be a contest between the haves and have-nots--the measure in this case being the bomb. The have-nots were a shade unhappy with rules proposed by the nuclear club: In addition to closing its ranks to further members, it wanted no competing (and much less exclusive) poison-gas club to be set up, either.
The issue takes on particular gravity as it applies to the Middle East. The Arabs accept the premise--as does most of the rest of the world--that Israel already possesses nuclear arms. The Israelis do not deny it. In response, the Arabs have articulated the rather troublesome doctrine that they are entitled to possess chemical weapons as a balance.
"It is unacceptable," said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh in Paris, "given continued Israeli occupation and the disequilibrium existing in our region, to adopt selective concepts and methods aimed at disarmament concerning only one kind of mass-destruction weapon without taking into account the need of disarmament concerning other forms."
The problem in the Middle East, as we know from painful experience, is that the people who issue deadly threats are probably not bluffing.
The Israelis have never enunciated a nuclear doctrine, but it is generally assumed that if Israel were about to be overwhelmed in a war, they would draw the Big One out of the arsenal. They have also shown that they have the missiles to deliver it.
What the Arabs are saying now is that if Israel gives in to such a temptation, they will come right back with a nasty dose of chemicals. The Iraqis demonstrated during their war with Iran that they know how to use them.
The fact is, if a war were to start, a messy exchange between nukes and gas is not a far-fetched scenario. And until a peace is reached, the prospect of another war remains alive.
Within the State Department, there is a school of thought--for which, I suppose, we should thank Henry A. Kissinger, who founded it in the years before the Yom Kippur War--which holds that it makes sense to try for an Arab-Israeli settlement only after the two sides have bloodied each other. An argument could be made that the theory was validated after thousands died in 1973. But that was when wars between Arabs and Israelis were waged quickly and on battlefields, not in cities where millions of noncombatants on both sides are likely to die.
As long as these wars were contained, the superpowers could assist their clients while themselves sitting back, growling at each other. What we do not know is how Washington and Moscow would respond toeach other in a massive war, which would spread poison as well as death. It is a good bet that the next one will be massive, jeopardizing more than the Middle East.
Moreover, since young Palestinians hurled the first stones of the intifada more than a year ago, the region has been transformed. Replacing the heavy despair that pervaded the Palestinians for two decades is a heady sense of expectation, fostered by the American decision last December to begin talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Many Israelis, too, have--with a sigh of relief--taken Washington's decision to mean that it has at least chosen to shift its weight from the status quo to promotion of a peace settlement. In the minds of most Middle Easterners, the only question that remains is when Bush will drop the other shoe. If he takes too long, inviting back despair, he risks expanding the intifada into a full-scale war of terror. He also encourages Arab extremists, particularly the dissidents within the PLO, to believe that their cause is not lost. The consequences of both to achieving peace could be grievous.
The President must have a major peace initiative ready for Israel's prime minister, Yitzak Shamir, when he arrives here for a visit next month. The chance of an Arab-Israeli settlement has never been so promising, but if he allows American involvement to drift, the prospect will be lost.
The Middle East cannot afford another war. Neither can the United States.