What's the instinctive response to failure? Redouble your efforts, of course. Lost on the road? Don't admit it - you'd have to stop to figure out where you went wrong, maybe even suffer the humiliation of having to ask for directions. Instead, just step

What's the instinctive response to failure? Redouble your efforts, of course.

Lost on the road? Don't admit it - you'd have to stop to figure out where you went wrong, maybe even suffer the humiliation of having to ask for directions. Instead, just step on the gas and go faster - that will make up for the lost time.

You see it in politics, too. Schools in terrible shape? Spend more money on the existing mess. War going badly? Send more troops to the generals who've failed. Palestinian-Israeli crisis? Reinforce the failed diplomacy that created the mess.

Let's review the last point. Things were not great between the Arabs and Israel 10 years ago, but neither were they that bad. Israel's toughness permitted it to achieve a modicum of acceptance by its Arab neighbors, as symbolized by Anwar Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem.

By 1993, Israel's leadership convinced itself that Arabs fully accepted the existence of a sovereign Jewish state, so it radically changed approaches. Thinking it no longer had to assert its existence, it displayed a gentler side, hoping that diplomacy could settle such secondary issues as borders, Jerusalem's status, and refugees, thereby closing down the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nice idea, but it failed. Seeing Israel's willingness to negotiate as a sign of its vulnerability, Arabs responded not with the expected good will but with violence. Rather than win Israel more acceptance, diplomacy lost it the recognition it had previously achieved.

Israel's response to this disaster? In time-honored fashion, it stepped on the gas, offering ever more generous terms to the Palestinians. It got back ever more violence.

That violence reached such alarming levels by the end of 2000 that Israelis had to rethink their approach. They concluded that their concessions on borders, Jerusalem and refugees were useless, even counterproductive, so long as Palestinians sought to destroy the State of Israel.

As Israelis came to their senses (reverting to their pre-1993 policy of toughness and deterrence), the Bush administration persists in promoting the failed policy of compromise on secondary issues. The downward trajectory of the past decade seems not at all to have shaken its belief in diplomacy.

That explains why the Bush administration still warms itself with such thoughts as these:

* One senior administration official: "The weight of the Arab world is now behind peace with Israel."

* Another senior administration official: "The essence of the president's approach is that, given the failings of [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat and others, a lot of players need to step up."

* A well-informed Washington Post article: "Bush's plan seems to be to convince Sharon that the United States will guarantee its security, if not with American troops, then with the creation of a Palestinian state Israel can live with."

* The White House spokesman assures Israel that Washington would devote "real money" to this Palestinian state.

The premise behind these statements is that diplomacy plus compromises can end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This might be plausible - if we had not just watched since 1993 how just such too-clever diplomacy had the effect of turning a bad situation into a crisis.

Must the U.S. government repeat its mistaken policy of the past decade? Should it insist on doing so, it this time might turn a crisis into a full-scale war.

Instead, Washington should seek out and address the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This has nothing to do with any of the issues currently being discussed - Israel's borders, a Palestinian state, Arab "refugees" or economic improvement.

It has, rather, to do with something almost never mentioned in official circles, for that is an unpleasant fact that politicians would rather avoid: the unremitting Arab rejection of Israel's existence. This rejectionism lay behind the Arab attack on Israel in 1948 and all violence since, including the current campaign of suicide bombings.

If the Bush administration wishes to make itself useful, let it address the reality of Arab rejectionism. That would imply not slight adjustments to the present policies but adopting a wholly different outlook:

* Stand unequivocally by Israel to signal the Arabs that their dream of destroying Israel is futile.

* Take steps to prevent Arab violence against Israel.

* Discourage Arab-Israeli negotiations until the Arabs clearly and consistently show they have fully come to terms with Israel's existence.

Only when the U.S. government acknowledges the bankruptcy of the current approach - finessing Arab rejectionism through compromise - might it start on the much harder work of tackling head-on the sources of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Of course, that means easing off the gas pedal and asking for directions.

CLARIFICATION: In my April 15 article, "Make the Saudis Pay for Terror," I referred to Cherif Sedky as a "high-ranking" Saudi, by which I meant that he is a resident of Saudi Arabia, not a Saudi citizen.