The Bush administration's dilemma is clear as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell travels to Israel and the West Bank to push for implementation of the "road map" that the administration has unveiled with Russia, the Europeans and the United Nations.
On one side, President Bush has stated that he is personally committed to establishing a Palestinian state within three years and to the road map drawn up to get there. This commitment binds him publicly at home and abroad, where the United States has been accused of not following through on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On the other side, it is clear that the road map was designed to deflect international pressure to revive Arab-Israeli negotiations before the Iraq war. The terms of the road map are therefore more reflective of political calculations and the necessary compromises than they are of a plan that can be implemented.
So the administration is in a tough bind.
Without significant international intervention, the road map is entirely dependent on the good will of Israelis and Palestinians, and there is very little good will between them today.
The road map is effective only if it is accepted as a whole, without revisions. For if it is opened to negotiation, there would be a challenge every step of the way. Yet it is clear that Israel has reservations, rendering reliance on good will unwise.
If the administration abandons the road map, or opens it to negotiation, its credibility will be on the line and it will be hard pressed to put forth a better alternative.
If it decides to push through with the road map's implementation, it will have to elevate mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict to the top of its priorities. Without such a commitment from the White House, it is difficult to imagine that the administration would succeed in overcoming the many obstacles, which require using U.S. influence and political capital.
Such leverage would inevitably come at the expense of other important issues, such as North Korea, the challenge in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the economy and the forthcoming election campaign.
Clearly, a U.S. role is essential for the success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, especially given the prevailing mistrust. But it is also obvious that ultimate success depends on Palestinian politics, Israeli politics and the role of the Arab states.
In that regard, the formation of a Palestinian Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is a positive step that at a minimum gives the United States and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the opportunity to revive the dialogue. It remains to be seen whether the Palestinian government can implement the vision set out by Mr. Abbas. The extent to which his vision will clash with Yasser Arafat's will also be a factor. But in the end, one man is in the driver's seat: Ariel Sharon.
There is much the Palestinians can do, but there is more they cannot do without Mr. Sharon's help.
The Palestinian Authority and its security forces are a shadow of what they were, at least in the West Bank, where much of the Palestinian infrastructure has been destroyed.
In Gaza, where the PA has more influence, confrontation with Hamas and other militant groups could be self-destructive unless the PA gains Palestinian public support. To do this, it needs Israeli actions (troop withdrawals, an end to curfews and checkpoints) and, more importantly, a revival of real hope that a negotiated settlement is possible.
Mr. Sharon therefore has critical decisions to make that will affect the course of negotiations. Certainly these decisions are dependent on the outcome of the recent leadership change within the Labor Party, which may result in a new national unity government that reduces the influence of the ultraright.
Mr. Sharon assumes, probably correctly, that the Bush administration, which has carved out a close relationship with his government, is not likely to challenge him as it enters an election year. He may have to decide whether he wants to seek an agreement with the Palestinians in the coming months or whether he prefers to continue relying on unilateral measures in the West Bank and Gaza.
If he prefers to avoid implementing the road map, he may see a new opportunity to revive Syrian-Israeli negotiations as a way of shifting attention. The sense that Syria is on the defensive after the Iraq war and the fact that Syria has sent a message of interest in renewing negotiations may provide Mr. Sharon with an opening, if this is his course, of choice.
This would be a mistake if it came at the expense of the urgent need to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which violence, death and occupation provide compelling moral reasons to move forward, even aside from the strategic imperative.
To succeed in those negotiations, there is a need for reaching understanding in the coming weeks among Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas. No real progress is likely before then.