The crisis in the Middle East is escalating rapidly and has already approached the point where it threatens the security of the entire region, as well as that of the United States. Israel’s belligerent behavior in the West Bank has the potential to ignite a full-blown regional conflict, and will do nothing to halt the horrific series of suicide bombings that has wracked Israel in recent months. Instead, it will only fan the flames of Arab anger and hatred for Israel. The time has come for the Bush administration to take a strong stand by reining in Israel’s pointless and destructive campaign before it is too late.

In recent weeks, Israel has closed off areas of intense military activity like Ramallah to the press so as to carry out its campaign there in secret. It has deliberately sowed terror by killing innocent people, destroying infrastructure, bulldozing Palestinian homes and bombing offices. It has shot foreign journalists and international observers. Absurdly, it has insisted that Yasser Arafat curb Palestinian terrorism even as the Israeli military besieges him in his compound.

This unfortunate episode is a lesson in what happens when extremists control a powerful state. As in the United States, the far right in Israel has not only gained significant political power but has also succeeded in portraying itself as mainstream. Both before and after taking office, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has engaged in bellicose rhetoric and behavior. In September 2000 when he was a leader of the opposition, Sharon visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount with a large police contingent and immediately provoked an eruption of violence. More recently he stated publicly that Israel’s aim was to force the Palestinians to the table by deliberately inflicting casualties.

On the whole, U.S. President George W. Bush’s response to the crisis can most charitably be described as tepid. His recent admonitions to Israel to withdraw from the West Bank are too little, too late, and are being ignored by the Israelis. Moreover, the distorted approach that the Bush administration has taken to the problem of terrorism — vilifying the stateless variety while ignoring the far more significant state-sponsored form — has made it very difficult for the United States to rein in Israel’s military campaign in the occupied territories.

Since the birth of Israel in 1948, the axiom of its leaders has been “never again” — that is, never again would Jews suffer the fate that they did under the Nazis. Given the fresh memories of the Holocaust in the minds of Jewish people at that time, this militant attitude was justified. However, the problem is that right-wing extremists like Sharon interpreted “never again” to mean that Israel must retaliate for every act of violence committed against the Jewish state, even if it means killing innocent people in the process. It is this fanatical ideology which is motivating Israel’s murderous campaign in the West Bank today.

In actuality, this drive will do nothing to curb the despicable series of suicide bombings that has ravaged Israel in recent months. If anything, it will escalate the violence, leading to more and more atrocities on both sides. Every day that the Israelis continue their military campaign, the likelihood of a regionwide conflict increases. The United States will inevitably be drawn into such a conflict, which in turn would increase the likelihood of further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Sept. 11 taught Americans that we cannot help being affected by events beyond our borders. As Israel’s chief ally, we will be held responsible by the Arab world for actions undertaken by Israel. That is why America must be prepared to take strong action to force Israel to draw back its military campaign before events spiral out of control. An Israeli refusal to immediately withdraw from the West Bank should be met by an abrupt cutoff of U.S. aid. If this does not have the desired effect, stiff sanctions should also be adopted. Up until very recently, Bush has seriously underestimated the gravity of the situation in the Middle East. Unless he acts quickly to put a halt to Israel’s suicidal mission in the occupied territories, the safety of Americans — as well as all residents of the region — will be gravely threatened.

Seth Cook FOR ’03 is a doctoral candidate in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.