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The United States is gambling that the time is right for a new peace initiative between Israel and Palestinians and that a two-state solution to the seemingly intractable conflict can finally be realized. Earlier this week, U.S. President George W. Bush called for a Middle East peace conference of nations that share that vision.

A genuine U.S. commitment to help — and push — the two sides toward agreement might end the stalemate of the past several years. But U.S. policy has been fickle, with rhetoric substituting for the hard work essential to overcoming the enmity that dominates relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Bush’s call for a high-level regional peace conference this fall was the natural outcome of recent events. The Palestinian leadership is split. Hamas, the Islamic militant group, controls Gaza; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction are in charge of the West Bank. Battles between the two have been fierce. Last weekend, Mr. Abbas installed an interim government dominated by more moderate Palestinians.

Meanwhile, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is about to take up his role as envoy for the Middle East “Quartet,” composed of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Mr. Bush wants Mr. Abbas, the face of moderate Palestinians, to prevail in the struggle against Hamas. To that end, he has promised $190 million in economic assistance to the Palestinian territories and $80 million more to help train Palestinian security forces. He has called on the Palestinian authorities to crack down on weapons trafficking and to arrest terrorists. He urged other Arab leaders to prove themselves the equals of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan, by becoming peacemakers and sending high-level envoys to Israel and to the fall conference.

Turning to Israel, he called the Israeli presence in the West Bank an “occupation” and pressed Tel Aviv to prepare for talks on a territorial settlement, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. While welcoming the call for talks, Israeli officials repeated that their government is not yet prepared to discuss “the three core issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem.” Israel, though, did finalize a list of 250 Palestinian prisoners to be released this week as a goodwill gesture. Unfortunately, that’s only a fraction of the more than 10,000 Palestinians who remain in Israeli detention.

Is Mr. Bush truly prepared to push peace talks? His record is not encouraging. He was the first U.S. president to formally endorse the “two-state solution,” but his administration has been remarkably lax about pressing Israel toward a real peace agreement. Instead, he has been intensely suspicious of Palestinians and other Arab governments. Some reports had Washington dampening Israeli enthusiasm for talks with Syria.

Cynics allege that the president is really focused on Iraq and that his professing a desire to see progress in the Israel-Palestinian standoff is designed to provide him much-needed leverage in dealing with other Arab states when it comes to Iraq. Mr. Bush also hopes to use concern among those same governments about gains that Hamas has made in Gaza. Others note that the funds promised have already been committed; no new money is involved.

Progress will depend on the U.S. demonstrating that it is serious about facilitating a deal. Mr. Bush took office convinced that his predecessor, Mr. Bill Clinton, had squandered U.S. credibility with negotiations that it could not conclude. He was also certain that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could not be trusted, and consequently he was not prepared to push Israel to make a deal. If that same mind-set continues, these talks will be as fruitless as all their predecessors.

Ominously, White House officials have been backing away from characterizing the initiative as a “conference.” Instead, it is being referred to now as a “meeting.” That could be a way of dampening expectations, or it could demonstrate that Washington is still not serious about pressing all sides to make a real deal. In fact, the U.S. walks a fine line. The failure of Mr. Bush to get personally involved would be taken as indication that this is more show than substance. Yet his administration has alienated so many in the Middle East that pushing a policy may be considered the best way to undermine it.

The best option is to use the most valuable resource: Mr. Blair. Mr. Bush should empower him to do what the Quartet envoy was originally intended to do: lead real negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. If given the authority and the resources, Mr. Blair may be able to pull off in the Middle East what he accomplished in Northern Ireland.

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