Two diplomatic fiascoes in the past four months suggest this is the moment for American politicians to do some hard rethinking about the effort to help bring peace to Israel and the Arabs. When negotiations between Syria and Israel floundered back in

Two diplomatic fiascoes in the past four months suggest this is the moment for American politicians to do some hard rethinking about the effort to help bring peace to Israel and the Arabs.

When negotiations between Syria and Israel floundered back in March, the American side brought out President Clinton, its ultimate diplomatic heavy hitter, to clinch a deal.

Though the lower ranks had not put together the elements of a deal - the usual step before letting the president to get involved - Clinton traveled to Geneva and met with the Syrian leader. The rendezvous went so badly that the White House spokesman reported afterwards that his boss did not believe "it would be productive" for Syrian-Israeli talks to resume.

When negotiations between the Palestinian and Israel floundered this month, Clinton again took almost precisely the same step - except this time he invested not an afternoon's tea but 15 days on and off with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. This time, too, the talks began without any assurances of a deal. Again they collapsed - so badly that Barak told a news conference afterwards that all ideas discussed at the summit had become "null and void."

The parallel between these two failures goes deeper. On both tracks, the Israeli government made far more extensive concessions to its Arab interlocutor than anyone expected. Ehud Barak was ready to turn over the whole Golan Heights to Damascus and showed an unheard-of willingness to compromise on Jerusalem, the most emotional issue facing his people.

More: To make a deal more palatable to the Arabs, Barak made very few demands from his opponents - not normalized relations from Syria, not a significant gesture to end the conflict from the Palestinians.

These developments prompted a fine-toothed analysis in U.S. media and policy circles about Israeli methods. Could Barak win a referendum on his proposed deal with Damascus? Did his concessions to the Palestinians doom his governing coalition? Trouble is, this focus on Israel meant pretty much ignoring the other side of the conflict. Not many people paid attention to the very negative reactions among the Syrian leadership and on the Palestinian street. And so it came as a surprise when the negotiations broke down. It was predictable to anyone paying attention to Arab politics.

Sure, Hafez al-Assad found it appealing to be handed back the very same Golan Heights he had lost in war 33 years earlier, plus the billions of dollars in aid he would have received from the West. But he rejected Barak's bountiful offer for domestic reasons, apparently fearing for his control over Syria if he signed a treaty with Israel.

Sure, Yasser Arafat liked that Israel was offering terms that would have been unthinkably generous just months ago, but a large portion of the Palestinian body politic (and standing behind it, the larger bodies of Arab and Muslim opinion) sees no reason to accept anything less than all its demands. Why settle for 90-some percent of the territory the Palestinian Authority claims when Hezbullah in Lebanon got 100 percent of its demands?

In this spirit, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin of Hamas, the fundamentalist Muslim group, views any deal with Israel as "not peace" but a "surrender imposed by America and Israel." He called on Arafat to drop the Camp David negotiations, saying that the Palestinian Authority "is required to stop the entire political process with Israel and to join us in the trench of resistance and jihad [sacred war]." The popularity of this outlook prevented Arafat, ever the pragmatist, from cutting a deal.

Errors at Geneva and Camp David offer some simple lessons for Americans.

First, always keep in mind that it was the Arabs who started the conflict, and it is they who must end it. Both negotiating tracks wrongly assumed that Israelis are in the driver's seat: should they decide to turn over the heights or the holy city, then that's a done deal.

In fact, Israel lacks such power. In the final analysis, key decisions of war and peace are made in Cairo and Damascus, not in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

This means, second, that truly to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict requires paying more attention to the forces that drive Arab politics. What fears shape the decision-making by Syrian leaders? How does one unravel the complex bundle of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas?

This is not easy; in contrast with Israeli affairs, which are seductively familiar, it is hard just to get factual information about Syria, and the Palestinian Authority is an unusual hybrid of democratic and despotic ways.

Hard though it may be, understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict means getting a much better fix on the Arab side of the equation.