The recently announced plans for an international conference on the Middle East confront the Bush Administration with a major test of its capacity for international leadership. The question is whether it will establish an agenda for the conference that will bring peace and justice to the region or whether it will allow American and world policy again to be dictated by Ariel Sharon’s government. The atrocious suicide bombing near Tel Aviv, which coincided with the Bush-Sharon meeting, must not be allowed to derail international efforts to achieve a political settlement–one that guarantees a viable Palestinian state, which will give Palestinians a stake in peace and in the renunciation of violence.

Given this Administration’s track record, the prospects of its standing up to Sharon are not encouraging. Recall the shameful way it allowed him to ignore UN resolutions calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and to stop a fact-finding mission to investigate the destruction of Jenin, despite a Human Rights Watch report adducing evidence that the Israeli forces had committed war crimes–using Palestinians as human shields and wreaking disproportionate destruction on civilian habitations.

Adding to the congenital White House tilt were the one-sided House and Senate resolutions of support for Israel adopted on the eve of Sharon’s arrival in Washington. The one in the House, steered through by whip Tom DeLay, echoed the Sharon line that Yasir Arafat isn’t a “viable partner for peace.” An idea of where DeLay is coming from was provided by his soulmate, GOP majority leader Dick Armey, who told Hardball host Chris Matthews that the Palestinians should be expelled from the West Bank and Gaza. The endorsement of ethnic cleansing by leading conservatives went almost unnoticed by the mainstream media. As Peter DeFazio, one of fifty House members who opposed the resolution, said, DeLay put Congress on record “somewhere to the right of the Likud.”

In fact, all of Washington is caught in the iron grip of pro-Likud sentiment, which prevents the United States from acting in the world’s interest, let alone its own. As Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment recently put it, “To call this a case of the tail wagging the dog would be inadequate–it is more a case of the tail dragging the dog around the room and banging its head on the wall.”

That is why an international conference is so crucial. The concept recognizes the importance of inserting other critical players in the international community into Middle East diplomacy. The purpose of the conference should not be to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It should be to win adherence to a US-European-Russian-UN plan for the implementation of a settlement as provided for in UN Security Council resolutions and by the recent Arab League resolution calling for the recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied territories.

This plan is one that nearly all sane people have come to recognize as the basis for peace in the Middle East: two states living side by side; dismantlement of the Israeli settlements; Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem; and recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees while limiting their numbers. But it is one the parties themselves have not been able to agree to, and in the current circumstances cannot be expected to negotiate seriously.

A reasonable interim stage could involve placing the occupied territories, including Israeli settlements, under international control pending the establishment of a Palestinian state and stationing international forces drawn largely from NATO countries to maintain order and security during the transition. The purpose of this agenda would be to take the peace process out of the hands of an Israeli government that may not want peace and to internationalize responsibility for security in the West Bank and Gaza. It is not Israel’s prerogative to determine whether a Palestinian state should exist; that is a matter for the international community to decide. Only the international community–in particular, the US in cooperation with the EU, Russia and the UN–can forge a settlement that will bring peace at last to both Palestinians and Israelis.