President Bill Clinton is threatening to interfere once again in the search for a peace settlement in the Middle East. If possible he should be kept at arm's length by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, whose quiet diplomacy has begun to make peace look like a possibility. If Mr Clinton now tries to elbow him aside and to reassert America's control of what should be an international operation, he is likely to fail as he has failed before. If that happens, it will be tragic for the people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, for whom a settlement would have brought relief from violence and misery and despair.
But one need feel no sympathy for Mr Clinton, whose motivation in bringing together Arabs and Israelis has always seemed to be his own personal ambition to score a foreign policy triumph that might rescue his tattered reputation. In pursuing that ambition, he has masqueraded as a mediator, an "honest broker", while all the time he and his team of Middle East advisers have worked, sometimes openly and sometimes surreptitiously, to advance the interests of Israel.
It would be more accurate to say that they were pursuing what they took to be the interests of Israel - whereas in fact they were helping to produce the result that we see today: a result tragic for the Palestinians, damaging to the Middle East and likely to be disastrous for the Israelis as well. Israel will never be secure until it can win the goodwill, or at least the tolerance, of its Arab neighbours. It must be obvious to everyone that this fictitious "peace process" has only intensified the frustration and bitterness that have found expression in the present Palestinian uprising.
The Americans have not merely failed to achieve their stated aim of an equitable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Ever since Mr Clinton persuaded Yasser Arafat to shake hands with Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on the White House lawn in September 1993, the American president and his advisers have actually made a just settlement harder to achieve.
Before that meeting there was already a perfectly adequate framework for peace, in the shape of UN resolutions 242 and 338. What was needed was to implement these resolutions, which called on Israel to withdraw from occupied territory in exchange for recognition by the Arabs of Israel and its right to exist behind secure borders. But as the Israelis built settlements all over the occupied territories it became apparent that they had no intention of withdrawing.
For a time, the Americans professed to regard the UN resolutions as the basis for the artificial "peace process". But gradually they dropped any mention of them, and as the years passed (and the Israeli settlements multiplied), they led the negotiations further away from the United Nations. They resisted every attempt to involve the Europeans or the wider international community in the search for peace in the Middle East. When the Palestine question was debated in the UN security council, the Americans invariably came to the defence of Israel, even to the extent of vetoing resolutions critical of Israeli policies that had the unanimous support of the other council members, including Britain.
All this has encouraged the Israelis to think themselves politically invulnerable. Confident of the unfailing support of the US, they could ignore UN resolutions, annex East Jerusalem, build Jewish settlements on Arab land, deny the Palestinians freedom of movement, invade southern Lebanon and bombard whatever targets they chose, up to and including Beirut - all this in defiance of their obligations as members of the UN. This is a scandalous catalogue of illegal activity, in which the underlying responsibility has been that of the US, made worse by the pretence that President Clinton, Madeleine Albright and the rest of them were acting in the interests of peace and justice.
So what next? A way must be found to break the US monopoly over Arab-Israeli negotiations and to return the search for peace to where it belongs: the UN. This is what the Europeans should aim for. They have never made use of the influence they possess, and it is time they - especially Britain - played an active role instead of tagging along behind the Americans.
It is not a matter of being anti-American or anti-Israeli. The fact is that between them Israel and the US have colluded in a policy designed to favour the Israelis, rather than produce a balanced peace that would take account of the interests of all the peoples concerned.
Whether such a peace is still possible, now that a spark has set light to all the pent-up resentment over the failure of the American "peace process", it is impossible to say. Certainly it will not be easy, so the sooner a new initiative is taken, the better. The fact that the secretary general of the UN has taken the lead makes a good start. Now let Britain lead the other Europeans in lending him their support. And, if possible, keep Mr Clinton and Mrs Albright out of the picture.
Michael Adams is a research fellow in the politics department of Exeter University and a former Middle East correspondent of the Guardian.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000