AUSTIN, Texas -- Well, things do seem to be going to hell, don't they? The beauty of having fled to Mexico for a week to escape the endless blat of television news is that it leaves you with enough energy to tackle the subject of the Middle East -- if not with cheer, at least with hope.

And that does appear to be the missing ingredient here -- the expectation that anything at all can be done about the situation. Of course it can. The Israelis and the Palestinians are not condemned to some eternal hell where they have to kill each other forever. There is no military solution, but there is a political solution -- and they will get there. The United States is obliged to broker the deal because there's no one else to do it.

The situation could certainly use a couple of good funerals, but failing that luck, we have to deal with what's there. It is possible to deal with people who are beyond persuasion by either fact or logic, which to an outsider is certainly how both the Israelis and the Palestinians now seem to be behaving. Political solutions to apparently intractable situations can be manufactured. While the world has been paying very little attention, the Irish Republican Army has actually been destroying its own weapons dumps. Who thought there was a solution in Northern Ireland five years ago? Or on Cyprus, where the Greeks and the Turks enjoyed a history of hostility of far superior antiquity to that in the Middle East. This can be done.

The second important point is that the situation demands respect for the moral complexity of the situation. That's where we are slightly handicapped by our president, the moral simplifier. From the beginning, the trouble with "war against terrorism" has been the definition of terrorism and the immutable fact that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. After he got us involved in this war on a noun, Bush then upped the ante and announced it was a war between good and evil, and we would continue until we had eradicated evil. Oh man, this is going to be a long sucker.

It is precisely because of this rigid good-versus-evil oversimplification that Bush has been sort of snookered by Ariel Sharon into blindly supporting his actions because they are supposed to be "anti-terrorist."

The worst news I've read lately is several reports quoting people close to Bush saying, "He feels in his gut ..." He feels in his gut it is his mission in life to fight terrorism. He has a bad gut reaction to Arafat. Trust me on this, when Bush starts thinking with his gut, we're in big trouble.

Let me say for the umpteenth time, George W. is not a stupid man. The IQ of his gut, however, is open to debate. In Texas, his gut led him to believe the death penalty has a deterrent effect, even though he acknowledged there was no evidence to support his gut's feeling. When his gut, or something, causes him to announce that he does not believe in global warming -- as though it were a theological proposition -- we once again find his gut ruling that evidence is irrelevant. In my opinion, Bush's gut should not be entrusted with making peace in the Middle East.

Bush's gut does not like complexity. When you're in the middle of a moral crusade against evil, it's damned annoying to have to stop and grapple with unpleasant complications, such as that we have to keep letting Afghani farmers grow opium poppies, or that our allies the Saudi Arabians foment terrorism, or that our allies the Pakistanis seem to have quite a few "freedom-fighters" of their own. Moral complexity is a condition of life, and we will serve neither our own interests nor those of the Middle East if we keep pretending this is good versus evil.

There are many Palestinian terrorists. The Palestinians also have legitimate grievances that must be addressed. Sharon himself started this second Intifada with his cruelly reckless and deliberately inflammatory visit to the Temple Mount. Took no genius to see what that was going to touch off. If you want to blame this Intifada on someone in particular, Sharon is the leading candidate.

It is, however, more useful to concentrate on what can be done now. Any settlement will have to include getting the Israeli settlers off the West Bank -- another instance where Sharon has ill-served Israel. Removing the settlers is not a job anyone would envy -- that's where one sees the fanaticism on the Israeli side.

There has been much discussion of the suicide bombers as though this were some huge new spanner in the works. Everyone from shrinks to political scientists has had a go at explaining them, but it is at base a political phenomenon, a function of anarchy and powerlessness. I believe Sharon has reacted in a criminally stupid way, guaranteed to do no good at all. He is so focused on his old enemy Arafat that he is destroying Al Fatah , which will leave, of course, only Hamas.

Actually, as a conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian mess is a known quantity, similar to other conflicts over territory. It is the United States that is facing the truly bizarre situation: terrorists without territory.

I am in no particular position to preach to American Jews (or anyone else, come to think of it), but as a deeply worried Christian supporter of Israel, I think American Jews have an important role to play in this delicate and dangerous situation. The impulse of all Jews to support Israel totally -- especially when Israelis are being blown up -- is entirely understandable. But it's not necessarily helpful to Israel in this situation.

I do not think this is a time that calls for uncritical support. Despite the occasional full-page ad from some group pledging blind fidelity to Israel and blaming everyone but Sharon, I am impressed with the level of real debate and even agonizing going on among American Jews. Anyone who tells you criticizing Israel at this parlous time is somehow helping the Palestinians must be as dumb as, well, John Ashcroft, who maintains that to question the president is to help terrorists.

It is troubling that the Bush administration approaches this new attempt at negotiation so tepidly -- indeed, as though it has been dragged into it kicking and screaming. It has always been a worry that Bush has so little expertise on the Middle East around him -- Condi Rice, who may be his best, is notoriously weak in this area.

It truly doesn't help to play the blame game, but this administration was warned again and again that the escalating violence would finally break into catastrophe. And still they did nothing, apparently out of blind anti-Clintonism: Clinton pushed for a Middle East peace, therefore Bush wouldn't. Hell of a policy. Onward.

Last week, I began a sentence by saying, "If Bush had any imagination ..." and then I hit myself. Silly me. But if he did, he could put together an extraordinary peace commission involving any combination of Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, James Baker, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela ... you get the idea. You can name your own players. Meantime, all we can do is wish Godspeed to Powell

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