SPEAKING ABOUT the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first debate between the presidential candidates and last week's debate between the candidates for vice president, neither side has had much to say about the most enduring conflict in the region where America is now ensnared.
What little they have said would not arouse much hope for an imaginative or even balanced approach. Dangerously, candidates from both sides indicated the war in Iraq was fought to make Israel safer.
The Sept. 30 debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry revealed a striking similarity in the postures of both men.
In his only reference to Israel, Mr. Bush said: "A free Iraq will help secure Israel. A free Iraq will enforce the hopes and aspirations of the reformers in places like Iran. A free Iraq is essential for the security of this country."
One might observe that Mr. Bush had his priorities confused in that list. But Mr. Kerry also listed Israel's safety ahead of America's.
"I'm going to get it right for those [U.S.] soldiers, because it's important to Israel, it's important to America, it's important to the world, it's important to the fight on terror," he said.
So, Israel's safety appears to have become a primary cause for the war in Iraq, regardless of whether Israel itself had that in mind.
The vice presidential candidates were not more encouraging.
Vice President Dick Cheney took more than half his allotted 90 seconds for the only question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to defend himself on the issue of Halliburton and to attack Sen. John Edwards' attendance record in the Senate.
Then, he said, "In respect to Israel and Palestine ... the suicide bombers, in part, were generated by Saddam Hussein, who paid $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. I personally think one of the reasons that we don't have as many suicide attacks today in Israel as we've had in the past is because Saddam is no longer in business."
He called Mr. Bush "the first president ever to say we'll establish and support a Palestinian state next door to Israelis."
"But first," he said, "there has to be an interlocutor you can trust and deal with. And we won't have that, we don't have it now, in a Yasser Arafat. There has to be reform of the Palestinian system."
Most of Mr. Edwards' response to the question was the recollection of a visit he made to Israel in 2001. He recalled that the day he left Jerusalem's King David Hotel for the airport to fly home was the day a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis - including six children - in a pizzeria in Jerusalem.
"What are the Israeli people supposed to do? How can they continue to watch Israeli children killed by suicide bombers, killed by terrorists?" Mr. Edwards demanded.
"Now, if Gaza's being used as a platform for attacking the Israeli people, that has to be stopped. And Israel has a right to defend itself. They don't have a partner for peace right now. They certainly don't have a partner in Arafat, and they need a legitimate partner for peace."
A day before these debates got under way in America, Israeli children were being killed. Two of them died in a rocket attack on Sederot from Gaza. By the time the debates started, the Israeli retaliation for the rocket attacks was in full force. Israelis and Palestinians were counting the highest casualty toll of a single day in two years: three Israelis and 30 Palestinians dead, scores wounded, untold property damage. While the vice presidential candidates debated, the Israeli sweep-up in Gaza was still going strong.
And all the candidates could say was that the war in Iraq was fought to help protect Israel, that Israel had every right to retaliate against terrorism in any manner it deemed appropriate and that Mr. Arafat had to go.
Certainly, Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism. But in the four years since the current Palestinian uprising began, there's been little evidence that leveling Palestinian communities stops terrorism. Certainly, Mr. Arafat has not helped his own people to obtain peace, but what have the Israelis, or the Americans, done to create an environment in which another legitimate leadership might emerge - apart from the fanatical opponents of the peace process who are responsible for the suicide bombers?
But the notion that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq would make the region safer for Israel is appalling in its implications and bankrupt in reality. America cannot even make Iraq safe for the Iraqis.
The American adventure in Iraq has been a distraction from the war against al-Qaida, and it has been a distraction from the longstanding American commitment to help the Israelis and the Palestinians live in peace. That requires more energy and honesty than any of the candidates for president or vice president have demonstrated in this campaign.
G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun.
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