WASHINGTON – When President Bush (search) and John Kerry (search) talk about Mideast policy, they say little except to commit themselves to Israel's security. The rivals seem likely to say little more until one of them occupies the White House next year.
Unless, of course, circumstances force the issue.
The deteriorating health of Yasser Arafat (search), the 75-year-old Palestinian leader viewed as a pariah by both Bush and Kerry, brought the Mideast crisis once again into focus in an election that has largely bypassed the issue and focused instead on Iraq.
This week's approval by the Israeli Parliament of a pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank also raised the question of whether that might inspire a renewal of U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region.
If Bush made anything clear in nearly four years as president, it is that Arafat is not welcome in the White House and that Bush will not pressure Israel to negotiate with him.
Moreover, Bush agrees with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that attacks inside Israel as well as in the territories must be stopped by Palestinian security forces before peacemaking can resume.
Kerry has not tipped his hand on whether negotiations — and U.S. pressure to resume talks — should wait until terror attacks subside.
Last week, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts told Jewish voters in West Palm Beach, Fla., that he would do a better job than Bush in "holding those Arab countries accountable for funding terrorism."
"We'll do a better job of protecting the state of Israel," he said.
Kerry has spoken as scornfully of Arafat as Bush has. "Mr. Arafat has proven his unwillingness and incapacity to be able to act as a legitimate partner in the peace process," Kerry said in Florida.
The question, however, is whether Israel's security is better protected by negotiating even during outbreaks of terrorism or holding off until the violence subsides.
Writing in the Financial Times on Wednesday, former U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross said the United States must resume its role of broker. Among the steps he urged was finding out what specific security measures Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is ready to take to ensure that Sharon goes ahead with the pullout.
"Whoever is elected U.S. president next week will have to prepare the ground well in advance of the Israeli withdrawal if the Gaza pullout is to offer an opening to stability and not simply a new line from which the daily war continues," Ross wrote.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, said in an Associated Press interview that "any administration will have to come to terms with the fact the absence of progress on the Israel-Palestinian peace front contributes to intensified conflict and hostility."
That hostility, he said, is directed not only at Israel but also at the United States.
Bush has promised the Palestinians a state in 2005, but they clearly want more land than Sharon is willing to give up. Negotiations between the two sides may be dead in the water — at least until Arafat voluntarily steps aside or is felled by his illness.
Statehood by next year appears increasingly unrealistic.
Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel as well as assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, says Kerry is more inclined to engage on the question of a Palestinian state, recognizing that if the United States keeps its distance the danger of facing a growing coalition of terror groups will increase.
"We have to be active to show there is a hope of dealing with this," Walker, president of the Middle East Institute, said in an interview Wednesday.
But Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees serious obstacles to a renewal of peacemaking.
"The public on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides are deeply convinced there is no point in trying to make peace because the other side is trying to get an absolute victory," Alterman said.
Richard Holbrooke, who advises Kerry on foreign policy and could be his secretary of state, told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week that Kerry would appoint an envoy to the region — not to force Israel to make concessions but to pressure Arab governments to stop sponsoring terror.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, told the agency in a separate interview that such an envoy would "wander around" the region, telling Arab countries things they already hear.