In their communiqué on Sunday, the G-8 nations warned that Hamas and Hezbollah threatened to "plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict," and they also cautioned Israel "to exercise utmost restraint" in retaliating against attacks. The United States was a signatory to, rather than a subject of, the document; but when the final account of this crisis is written--perhaps years from now--the Bush administration is sure to figure as a factor. That's because over the last few decades most, if not all, Arab-Israeli crises have occurred when the United States has been either unable or unwilling to play an aggressive role as a mediator; and most have only abated after the United States has finally thrown itself into the middle of them. This latest conflict, which has engulfed Gaza and Lebanon and could spread eastward, may not prove to be an exception to this rule.

One could go back as far as 1948, but let's start with 1967. In May of that year, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered U.N. peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Nasser, who, as Michael Oren shows in Six Days of War, was well past his prime, was by no means determined to go to war. He half expected that the United Nations or the United States would arrange a diplomatic settlement that would make him look good without costing him troops. The Israelis looked to the United States to prevent war, but Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, preoccupied with the Vietnam War, reneged on a promise to organize a "Red Sea Regatta" to break the blockade. Johnson initially warned the Israelis not to launch a preemptive strike, but then equivocated.

Israel won the Six Day War, but the conflict with the Arab states, and particularly Egypt, continued unabated. In 1971, however, the new Egyptian President Anwar Sadat initiated a series of peace proposals very similar to what the Israelis and Egyptians would agree on at Camp David seven years later. In a gesture aimed at gaining American support, Sadat also threw out Egypt's Soviet advisors. The Israelis balked at Sadat's proposals, but they might have eventually come around if the United States had pushed harder. The Nixon administration, like the Johnson administration, was focused elsewhere. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was preoccupied with the Vietnam War. He had consigned the Arab-Israeli conflict to Secretary of State William Rogers, who, along with Assistant Secretary Joseph Sisco, tried to marshal administration support for the Egyptian plan but, encountering resistance, gave up. And so did Sadat and the Egyptians, who along with the Syrians went to war in 1973 and came close to defeating Israel. Finally, after that war, Kissinger began his furious round of shuttle diplomacy, which helped lay the basis for Jimmy Carter's success in pushing the Camp David agreement.

Camp David ended hostilities between Israel and Egypt, but not between Israel and the Palestinians and Syrians. Soon after Reagan took office, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon hatched a plan to end Palestinian attacks from Lebanon by driving the PLO out of Beirut and installing a pro-Israel Christian government. Reagan's Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, has insisted that he tried to dissuade Sharon from invading, but Israeli and American writers have concluded that Haig gave Sharon at least an amber light to invade. Like the Six Day War, Israel's invasion of Lebanon solved one problem but created many new ones, including a new anti-Israeli Shia opposition, led by a group called Hezbollah. It would have been to America's and Israel's benefit if Haig and Reagan had acted more forthrightly, but Reagan was preoccupied with winning his domestic program and Haig with Central America.

Of course, there were many other factors that contributed to these crises, but what remains striking is that they occurred at a time when American foreign-policy makers were either looking elsewhere or were divided about what to do. Equally striking is that the greatest progress in Arab-Israeli relations occurred during the Carter and Clinton administrations when American policy-makers were most clearly concentrating on the conflict.

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001, he withdrew from the ongoing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that had begun at Camp David and continued at Taba. These might have broken down anyway--the second intifada had started--but Bush's alternative of letting matters take their own course only made things worse. Bush waited until April 2002 to declare the mounting violence between Israelis and Palestinians unacceptable, but even then he proved incapable of bringing the two sides together to halt it. By that point, Bush had his own preoccupation: the coming invasion of Iraq.

Pressured by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush eventually agreed to a "road map" for peace, but his principal means of seeking peace in the region were based on a neoconservative fantasy about the road to Jerusalem passing through Baghdad (which presumed the success of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq) and on the assumption that Palestinian elections would result in a moderate alternative to the late Yasir Arafat. When these strategies failed, the administration pulled back its diplomatic effort. Its response to Hamas's election has been confused and divided, and helped set the stage for the present crisis. As it began, the United States was nowhere to be found. On July 5, Yossi Beilin wrote in Haaretz:

One of the most striking phenomena of recent weeks, given the stepped-up launching of Qassam rockets on Sderot, the painful incident at Kerem Shalom, and the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, is the absence of the American factor. ... [I]n terms of direct influence on the ground, there has been absolute American silence.

What to expect next? One can hope that the Bush administration, like the Nixon administration, will learn from its failures and devote itself to easing, if not resolving, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, Bush's public and private (but overheard) statements at the G-8 summit were not promising.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.