April 10, 2002 -- President Bush yesterday called once again for Israel to withdraw its forces from the West Bank "without delay." Until last week, Mr. Bush had displayed remarkable courage in resisting demands to curtail Israel's right to defend itself against relentless Palestinian terror. Now, abandoning that principled position in the quest for an elusive cease-fire, the president has revived the expectation that the Israelis must cease while the Palestinians keep firing. More tragically, he has reverted to a misconceived U.S. policy in the Middle East that, for over 50 years, has consistently backfired.

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has been the target of Arab terror. In the 1950s and '60s, "armed infiltration," as it was then called, caused hundreds of casualties and made life on Israeli streets and border settlements nearly as precarious as it is today. Yet, in spite of these losses and Israel's clear-cut case for avenging them, the U.S. denied Israel's right to retaliate. "The USG has consistently opposed reprisal raids," Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote in March 1955. "Such raids dangerously heighten existing tensions." Similarly, in November 1966, Dean Rusk declared, "We have said frequently that we cannot agree to or condone [Israeli] retaliatory action."

The rationale behind this policy was not so much moral as it was economic and strategic. American leaders claimed that Israeli reprisals could interrupt the flow of Arab oil to the West, while driving moderate Arab states into Soviet -- later, Islamic radical -- arms. There was also the belief, ultimately belied by Jordan's King Hussein, that an Arab defeated by Israel is an Arab less willing to make peace.

America's policy helped produce the very wars it sought to preclude.

None of these scenarios ever transpired, however, and, rather than peace, America's policy helped produce the very wars it sought to preclude. The terrorists learned that Jews could be killed with impunity, while frustrated Israeli leaders concluded that if they were going to be condemned for minor retaliations, they might as well respond massively.

Such was the case in 1956, when the Israelis, forbidden by America to strike back at terrorist bases in Egyptian-controlled Gaza, went ahead and drove the Egyptians from Gaza and Sinai. In 1967, again, Washington's refusal to let Israel go after Yasser Arafat and his al-Fatah terrorists emboldened Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser to remilitarize Sinai and rally the Arab armies to war. Israel replied with a pre-emptive strike that snowballed into the Six Day War. The pattern resurfaced in 1982 when Israel, fed up with rocket attacks over its northern border, and America's objections to punishing the PLO for launching them, invaded Lebanon.

Once war broke out, America repeatedly pressured Israel to cease firing before it could achieve its objectives. The results were disastrous. By forcing Israel to relinquish its gains in Sinai in 1948 and 1956, for example, the U.S. aided Egypt's ability to threaten Israel's existence again in 1967. The U.S.-imposed cease-fire in the 1973 Yom Kippur War saved attacking Arab armies from destruction but impaired Israel's deterrence power for years. The current onslaught of Palestinian terror can be traced in part to Arafat's last-minute evacuation from Beirut in 1982, another feat of U.S. intervention.

To be sure, Israel has not always yielded to American dictates on security. During the latter stages of the Six Day War, Israeli leaders ignored U.S. insistence on a cease-fire and proceeded to capture Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Paradoxically, Israel's determination to stand up for itself strengthened rather than dampened its image in the U.S.

The rule was again demonstrated in Israel's 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, an act that President Reagan at first denounced but then rewarded by elevating U.S. cooperation with Israel. Conversely, when Israel buckled to pressure -- in the Gulf War, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed not to respond to Iraqi scud attacks -- it earned Washington's contempt, and gained nothing in terms of defense.

For over half a century, U.S. attempts to rein in Israel militarily have encouraged Arab aggression and contributed to a series of inconclusive wars, setting the stage for even bloodier clashes. By submitting to restrictions, Israel has compromised, not enhanced, its security.

The question of peace and war in the Middle East today hangs in the balance. Either President Bush can continue to bend to pressure and try to prevent Israel from defending itself, or he can allow Israel to finish rooting out the terrorist infrastructure in the territories. The first path, as history proves, leads only to escalating terror and larger-scale Israeli reactions, with a risk of regional war. Only by standing firm with Israel in its legitimate fight against terror can President Bush pave the way toward a viable cease-fire and renewed negotiations on ending the conflict. It is not too late -- the pattern can still be broken.