In the Mideast, Obama Faces an Israeli-Palestinian Standoff That Threatens to Explode

A Bush legacy, Palestinian radicalism, and an Israeli right turn will burden any peacemaking effort.

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JERUSALEM—It would be hard to blame incoming President Barack Obama if he took one look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decided it wasn't for him. After all, the main thing President George W. Bush has to show for eight years of on-and-off Mideast peacemaking is Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip—the result of the administration's insistence on Gazan elections and subsequent instigation of a failed coup attempt against the elected Islamist rulers.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been essentially moribund for eight years, ever since the intifada broke out after the two sides failed to agree on a division of the land they've been fighting over for generations. Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and military clampdown on the West Bank have brought the violence down to a low flame, but the current state of no war/no peace can't go on forever, and trends indicate that if and when change comes, it's likely to be for the worse.

Obama's immediate challenge will be to help keep a lid on the situation so it doesn't slide back into the open warfare of the decade's early years. Formal peace between Israelis and Palestinians, like Israel has with Egypt and Jordan, may have to wait some more.

The most urgent front is Gaza, where a five-month cease-fire between Israel and the Strip's Islamic militant groups broke down on U.S. Election Day as the two sides resumed fire—with Gaza, as usual, getting much the worse of the exchange. The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire runs out December 19, and it's not clear whether there will be anything left by then to renew.

The danger of this conflict was highlighted this week when Jordan's King Abdullah received Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Amman. Abdullah implored them not to launch a threatened ground invasion of the Strip because it could destabilize his own regime, whose peace treaty with Israel is bitterly resented by Muslim fundamentalists.

By contrast, the West Bank is in a holding pattern. But Israel's military occupation and settlement enterprise there are so entrenched, and the moderate Palestinian leadership so weak, that the long-standing international goal of Palestinian statehood seems unimaginable.

Turning the West Bank into a Palestinian state—or half of one, the other half being Gaza—would require the removal of tens of thousands of radical Israeli settlers. This week's attempt by Israeli troops to remove just a handful of them from an illegally occupied house in Hebron set off violent resistance by settler mobs. All those years while the diplomats were talking, the settlers were creating "facts on the ground"—and it may well require unprecedented U.S. pressure on Israel to remove those facts to make way for Palestine.

But if Israel is still not ready to give up West Bank land, it's debatable whether the West Bank Palestinian leadership is ready to deliver peace. The Bush administration has invested heavily in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad. And, although the pair evidently mean well, it is widely believed that if the Israeli army pulled out of the West Bank as part of a peace deal, the Abbas-Fayad government would be overthrown by Hamas and other militant organizations.

In principle, most Israelis favor trading land for peace. But in practice, they're against doing it now in the West Bank; they fear giving West Bank terrorists a free hand to rocket Ben-Gurion Airport like Gazan terrorists have rocketed Israeli border towns since the army's pullout from the Strip three years ago.

There has been one encouraging sign in recent months: U.S.-trained Palestinian police have largely taken over for Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Jenin and around Hebron, where they are cracking down on Islamic militants. However, Abbas's men are still a long way from being able to shut down West Bank terror on their own.

So the deal remains land for peace—but neither Israelis nor Palestinians are holding up their end.