The massacre in Hebron probably marks the end of an era. With it, the optimists' three-year reign over the Arab-Israeli conflict concludes; starting now, more of us will realize that an Arab-Israeli peace is an elusive, highly fragile undertaking, and

The massacre in Hebron probably marks the end of an era. With it, the optimists' three-year reign over the Arab-Israeli conflict concludes; starting now, more of us will realize that an Arab-Israeli peace is an elusive, highly fragile undertaking, and that it might well fail.

Optimism became policy in the heady aftermath of Saddam Husayn's defeat. Because the Bush Administration believed the Arab-Israeli conflict was ripe for solution, the Madrid conference of late 1991 dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict and not-as you might expect-the Persian Gulf. Rather than use its new prestige and influence to confront the intractable problems of Iraq and Iran (where should their borders run? how do we prevent future acts of aggression?), the U.S. government shifted its gaze one thousand miles to the West (what are Israel's terms for withdrawing from the Golan Heights? who should represent the Palestinians?). In March 1991, President Bush boldly asserted that "the time has come to put an end to Arab-Israeli conflict." The Clinton Administration adopted the same approach and displayed, if possible, even more hope in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

In Israel, the Labor Party's electoral victory in June 1992 brought a sunny disposition to the negotiations. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres brought fundamental changes to the conduct of Israel's foreign relations. They dropped the old style of confrontation and stalemate, dispelled Likud fears of an Arab onslaught, and moved quickly toward compromise and resolution. They talked of using economic growth to build constituencies for peace, and of assuring that the next generation of Israeli men would not serve in the military, as did they, into its middle age and beyond.

Some Arab leaders got infected by the same bug. The Jordanian leadership's visionaries dismissed the Arab-Israeli conflict as an anachronism which needs quickly to be settled so that the Middle East can gain stability and prosper. Egyptian and Saudi diplomats took a similar approach, as did many of their brethren from the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms and North Africa. Finally, in a move that took our collective breath away, Yasir Arafat too began talking the talk. The moment of peace seemed finally to have arrived that bright summer day last September on the White House lawn. Western analysts read great things into it. For example, Ben Lynfield wrote in The Christian Science Monitor that the PLO-Israel mutual recognition and declaration of principles "have changed forever the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East."

As economics seem to loom larger and military strength smaller, Middle Easterners give off a sense of being aware that they are being left behind. The oil money was squandered, East Asia is taking off, and the West seems ever more distant. Even Saddam Husayn joins in this spirit, in his own bellicose manner: "If anyone imagines the Koreans can develop, the Americans can develop, and the Taiwanese can develop, but the Arabs cannot, then he is deluded." But another reality coexisted with these hopes, a reality of dark passions and downward trends. Consider: The ugly program of fundamentalist Islam is gaining strength in many of Israel's neighbors and among the Palestinians. The oil boom ended so long ago, the oil bust is now in its second decade, with no change ahead likely. Rogue regimes are entrenched in the Middle East and gaining in numbers. Sudan recently joined the ranks of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; Algeria could be next.

Moreover, a close look at Arab attitudes to Israel shows that not much has changed. A 1993 survey of one thousand Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians conducted by Hilal Khashan (and published in the Middle East Quarterly) makes this abundantly clear. Khashan concludes from his research that "the respondents show little understanding of the meaning of peace [with Israel], much less an appreciation of its possible benefits." Rather, they tend to see peace as a moratorium in which to prepare for the next round of fighting.

Nor has Israel been immune to negative developments. The split between religious and secular has widened, as has the one between doves and hawks-and Baruch Goldstein's horrible act of vengeance exacerbates both these divisions. What would Israelis do to each other if spared the Arab threat? It could be that external challenge has kept the state together.

As Americans, there's little we can do if Middle Eastern leaders persist in deluding themselves that peace and economic growth are just around the corner. But we can ourselves understand that the Middle East is on a downward course and prepare accordingly. From our point of view, the Middle East increasingly stands out as a region that develops and exports problems, including political radicals, terrorism, drugs, unconventional weaponry, and conspiracy theories. We should recognize that this region resembles the Pacific rim less than it does Africa; and we should ready ourselves for the many troubles yet to come.