On her current visit to Israel, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, faces the challenge 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 an important change from the last six months during which the Bush administration "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 former World Bank president. But nobody took responsibility for political co-ordination between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Impressive rhetoric without a commitment to the necessary hard diplomatic work has been the hallmark of the Bush administration policy. George W. Bush's caution stems from the lesson of Bill Clinton's failed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Mr Bush preferred to shift the burden of responsibility to the Israelis and Palestinians. His motto became, "Better not to try, than to try and fail" — as Mr Clinton did. Left to their own devices, however, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were not able to resolve their differences. While Arafat was around, this could be obscured by blaming him for the continuing intifada. But later, the need for US political engagement re-emerged.
The opportunity was certainly there. Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor, received a popular mandate to pursue a settlement. Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, assembled a left-right domestic coalition to back his historic decision to evacuate Israelis from Gaza. After four years of conflict, Israel's Gaza disengagement looked like a springboard to new peace negotiations. But in the last six months, chronic Palestinian dysfunction, Iranian meddling and Israeli domestic politics combined to undermine the opportunity.
Mr Abbas found himself constrained by Arafat's legacy of weak institutions, cronyism and political in-fighting. 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 hands. His hesitation emboldened Hamas. It accommodated his request for calm in order to reap the political rewards. In Gaza, Hamas created a popular army to rival Mr Abbas's divided security forces. Reinvigorated, it then spurned his power-sharing offer and is now challenging his control in the streets of Gaza.
On the other side, Mr Sharon was dragged into a bitter confrontation with disengagement opponents in his own party and the broader nationalist bloc. Understandably, he proved reluctant to take more decisions that would hand opportunities to his critics.
Consequently, co-ordinating disengagement became almost impossible. Enter Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ). True to past form, it has been working to undermine the calm. This is more than rivalry between terrorist groups. PIJ is armed, trained, funded, and takes its orders from Tehran. Iran has long shown intense interest in preventing any Israeli-Palestinian settlement, for such a deal would increase its isolation and block its efforts to spread influence to the Arab heartland. PIJ suicide bombings in Tel Aviv in February and Netanya in July were the natural result, wrecking the de facto ceasefire and provoking Hamas to join the fray. With rockets falling on Gaza settlements, Israeli forces are poised for a full-scale incursion into Gaza.
To salvage the hope of peacemaking, Ms Rice should, first, stick with her instinct not to abandon the problem. Beyond that, she should see the common interest in Mr Sharon's and Mr Abbas's difficulties. Both face dangerous splits within their ruling parties. Both are battling their own extremists. Both need the other to succeed. 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 as they endure the hardest tests of their political lives will be more effective than 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. 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. 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.
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