The conventional wisdom has it that the Middle East is a powder keg, poised to explode as Israelis and Palestinians throw around lighted matches with equal irresponsibility.

According to this theory, the United States must intervene at once if calamity is to be avoided.

Specifically, we are told, the Bush administration must force Israel to make concessions required to restart the peace process and bring it to an early and successful conclusion: Arafat must be rehabilitated and his proto-government and army rebuilt. Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank must be halted and dismantled. New negotiations must resume at once, with the starting point being the generous offer Israel's Ehud Barak made — and Arafat rejected — at the end of the Clinton administration.

And American "monitors" must swiftly be emplaced on the ground between the parties.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if, far from preventing conflict, such U.S. intervention would have the effect of preventing Israel from decisively defeating its enemy in the war on terror and emboldening the latter to continue its bloody "jihad" against the Jewish state?

Given the "group-think" that passes these days for informed analysis and opinion about the Middle East in many official and unofficial circles, it will strike some as outlandish that such a question is even being asked.

Yet, as Caroline Glick — a brilliant columnist for the Jerusalem Post who formerly served as an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — observed in last Friday's paper, this would hardly be the first time that the United States has acted to prevent Israel from "winning the war politically" by consolidating its military victories.

In fact, Washington has repeatedly saved the Jewish state's enemies from the sort of crushing defeat that often changes political and strategic realities — and sometimes the losing sides' leaders, or at least their willingness to make war.

As Ms. Glick recounts, in Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1956, 1967 and 1973, in Lebanon in 1982, and after the Gulf War, American administrations forced Israel to afford the vanquished opportunities to fight another day. Not surprisingly, time and again, they have done just that:

"Throughout this history, the U.S. has justified denying its democratic ally the fruits of its military victories against despotic aggressors 'in the interests of peace.' This policy has never brought peace, nor has it engendered stability. Rather, just as feeding the beast acts not to placate it but to strengthen it, so U.S. placation of the Arab world at Israel's expense has legitimized Arab rejection of Israel."

The ominousness of the Arab behavior encouraged by well-intentioned Americans is hard to overstate. According to Ms. Glick: "Never having to worry about losing irrevocably in their wars against Israel, rogue states like Syria, Iraq, and Iran ostentatiously build up non-conventional capabilities to destroy Israel. For their part, supposedly moderate regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are free to inspire as much anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment as they wish, knowing there will never be a serious price to pay, even if this hatred foments a war they will lose."

The fact is that successive U.S. demands for Israel prematurely to end or curtail its operations — what might be called "combat-interruptus" — and pursue cease-fire and/or peace negotiations with her enemies have utterly failed to stop Arab aggression towards the Jewish state. Instead, they have given the Arabs the wrong sort of hope, encouraging the belief that the United States will see to it that terror, violence or even war against Israel pays.

It is time to consider a different approach: The Bush administration should not oppose Israel using its military might decisively for the purpose of eliminating, once and for all, Arafat's corrupt despotism — a precondition to the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian leaders who understand and genuinely accept that there really is no alternative to coexistence with Israel. Only then would a so-called "two-state" solution remotely be conducive to peace.

Could this prescription risk the wider war we are so anxious to avoid? It could, but so does the present approach. In fact, the danger of such a regional conflict is much greater if — thanks to American intervention — Israel is perceived by her enemies to lack freedom of action.

Even more perilous would be the all-too-correct perception that Israel has made itself vulnerable to a new, final Arab onslaught if it were to accede under present circumstances to U.S. and international pressure to relinquish the strategic depth and high ground of the West Bank.

Besides the fact that it has been an abject failure, there is one other argument for abandoning the policy of American hamstringing of Israel: Supporting "regime change" in the interest of permanently destroying terrorist infrastructures and the culture of rabid hostility towards Western democracies that they foment happens to be the explicit policy of the U.S. government in Afghanistan, Iraq and presumably beyond.

For Israel, as for this country, the only way to a real peace lies through prosecution of an effective, if discriminate, war on those who aid and abet terror.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.