Palestinian Paradox

The road map for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict went flying out the car window over the weekend. Now the peace driver, President Bush, needs to hustle to retrieve it, or find a new map less prone to political gusts in the Middle East.

Peace prospects faltered when top Palestinian leaders openly split over the control of their disparate security forces and whether to crack down on the radical group Hamas, and the main source of suicide bombings against Israel.

The US had sought such a split, but it didn't want this result: The anti-Hamas prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, the main Palestinian leader the US was relying on to strike a deal with Israel, abruptly resigned on Saturday.

That's revived the power of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who's lately been persona non grata with both Israel and the United States; he was also a prime mover during the failure of the last peace plan, the 1993-2000 Oslo Accords.

This crisis appears to show that popular Palestinian sentiment remains with Mr. Arafat, partly if not mainly out of resentment toward Israel's heavy-handed treatment of the subjugated Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And that's the chicken-and-egg problem for Mr. Bush: How to win over more Palestinians with US dollars and more concessions from Israel, so they will grant legitimacy to leaders like Mr. Abbas - who can then put a stop to the suicide bombings - but all without making those leaders look like US or Israeli stooges.

Israel could have made more concessions during Abbas's four months in office, and Bush could have twisted more arms all around to avoid this latest crisis. Instead it now appears Israel has launched a full-scale war on Hamas to defend itself against more attacks. On Saturday it tried but failed to kill the Hamas religious leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, which could accelerate the spiral of violence.

The US tactic to win over Palestinians by supporting leaders most committed to peace has failed for now. But the hope for peace never can.

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