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On her current visit to Israel, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, faces the challenge may wish she had had packed a fireman’s helmet, for her main challenge is to douse of dousing the flames of renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether or not she succeeds, her instinct to commit her prestige to promoting peace should be applauded.

Her efforts appear to signify are an important change from the last six months during which the Bush administration preferred to “sub-contracted” peacemaking. The task of reforming Palestinian security services was handed to Lieutenant-General William Ward and responsibility for the economics of Gaza disengagement was given to James Wolfensohn, the heavy-hitting, former World Bank president. James Wolfensohn. But nobody took responsibility for political co-ordination between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Impressive rhetoric without a commitment to the necessary hard diplomatic work needed to stimulate a return to peacemaking has been the hallmark of the Bush administration policy. George W. Bush’s caution stems from the lesson of Bill Clinton’s failed efforts to achieveIsraeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Mr Bush preferred to shift the burden of responsibility to the Israelis and Palestinians. His motto (like Mr Clinton’s) became, “Better not to try, than to try and fail” – as Mr Clinton did. (like Clinton). Left to their own devices, however, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were not able to lacked the capability, political will and necessary mutual trust to resolve their differences. While Arafat was around, this could be obscured by blaming him for not stopping the continuing intifada. But when once he diedafter his deathlater, the need for US political-level American political-level political engagement re-emerged.

The opportunity was certainly there. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, received a popular mandate to end the intifada andpursue a negotiated settlement. Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, assembled a left-right domestic coalition to provide domestic backing for back his historic decision to evacuate Israelis settlements from Gaza. After four years of bloody conflict, Israel’s Gaza disengagement looked like a springboard to new peace negotiations. But in the last six months, while Mr Bush and Ms Rice looked on, chronic Palestinian dysfunction, dysfunctionalismIranian meddling and Israeli domestic politics combined to undermine the opportunity. and stall Gen Ward’s and Mr Wolfensohn’s admirable efforts.

President MahmoudMr Abbas found himself constrained by Arafat’s legacy of weak institutions, corrupt cronyismpolitical in-fighting and political in-fighting. and a breakdown of law and order. Mr Abbas He should have jettisoned the feckless old guard restored order and garnered popular support to confront the terrorists. But that was too risky. Instead, He resorted to old-style consensus politics, to the exasperation of the young guard in his ruling Fatah party. Meanwhile, armed gangs spawned by the intifada took the law into their own hands. His hesitation emboldened Hamas. It accommodated his request for calm in order to reap the political rewards and rebuild its damaged infrastructure in the West Bank.. In Gaza, Hamas created a popular army to rival Mr Abbas’s divided security forces. Reinvigorated, Hamas it then spurned his offer to share power-sharing offer and are is now challenging his control in the streets of Gaza.

On the other side, Mr Sharon was dragged into a bitter and divisive confrontation with disengagement opponents in his own party and the broader nationalist bloc. His life became both physically and politically threatened.Understandably, Mr Sharon he proved reluctant to take further more decisions that would hand opportunities to his might provide new critics. with new opportunities

Consequently, co-ordinating disengagement became almost impossible. Enter Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ). True to past form, it has been working overtime to undermine the calm. with new terrorist attacks. This is more than rivalry between terrorist groups. PIJ is armed, trained, funded, and takes its orders from Tehran. Iran has long shown an intense interest in preventing any Israeli-Palestinian settlement, for such a deal would increase its isolation and block its efforts to spread its influence to the Arab heartland. PIJ suicide bombings in Tel Aviv in February and Netanya in July were the natural result, producing a breakdown of wrecking the de facto ceasefire and provoking Hamas to join the fray. With rockets falling on Israeli towns and Gaza settlements, Israeli forces are poised for a full-scale incursion into Gaza.

So how can Ms Rice To salvage the hope of peacemaking, Ms Rice should, first, she should stick with her current instinct not to abandon the problem. Beyond that, she should see the common interest in emerging from Mr Sharon’s and Mr Abbas’s common difficulties. Both face dangerous splits within their ruling parties. Both are now battling their own extremists. Both need the other to succeed. Sharon needs Abbas to rein in Hamas and PIJ, for the alternative is an Israeli army invasion of Gaza that would delay disengagement and lead to evacuation of settlers under fire. Mr Abbas needs Mr Sharon to threaten, but not order, that military offensive so he can justify tackling Hamas and PIJ to avoid disaster for Gazans. And both need US backing to survive. By insisting that Mr Sharon exercise restraint while demanding that Mr Abbas confront terrorists, Ms Rice can provide cover for both leaders with their people. Standing with them on the ground as they endure the hardest most difficult tests of their political lives will be more effective than the previous Bush administration penchant for finger-wagging from afar. She should save that for Tehran.

Of course, Ms Rice faces the risk of failure. But Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas are taking far greater risks. The US cannot expect them to demonstrate courage if its leaders are unwilling to bolster them at critical times. in their hour of need. There is also the chance of success. An Israeli prime minister is preparing to evacuate settlers while a Palestinian president is battling terrorists. Their actions are popular because their people are sick of war. and long for normalcy. They prefer their leaders to try and fail than not try at all. That is also a good motto for Ms Rice and Mr Bush. to adopt too.

The writer, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former US ambassador to Israel, recently visited Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank

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