Bush's hopes shattered by latest Hamas bombing

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The latest suicide bombing, this time in the coastal town of Netanya, has dealt Washington yet another blow in a setback-strewn week for its endeavours to broker a Middle East truce that could hasten the resumption of peace talks.

The timing could not have been more embarrassing -- barely two hours after President Bush claimed that his envoy, General Anthony Zinni, was making "very good progress" towards a ceasefire. Mr Bush declined to predict when an accord might be signed, "but progress has been made and that is where the focus of this administration is".

To make matters worse, the bombing came as Arab leaders struggled to keep their summit in Beirut on track following the non-attendance of Yasser Arafat and the walkout by the Palestinian delegation after the Lebanese authorities initially blocked the satellite transmission of his speech.

Even before that, Washington, which had urged Israel to allow Mr Arafat to attend, had been boxed into a corner by Prime Minister Sharon's heavy hint that the Palestinian leader – if he did go to Beirut – might not be allowed back.

The US is thus facing at least short-term failure on two key fronts: implementation of the ceasefire plan drawn up by George Tenet, the CIA director, last year, and the peace initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which Washington had hoped would be given a real impetus by the Beirut meeting.

Instead, the Bush administration has watched as the summit has been devalued, first by the decision of the two key moderate Arab leaders, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, not to participate, and then by the row over Mr Arafat. This is seen as a humiliation inflicted by Israel, and implicitly by its patron the US – even though Washington could not impose its will on Mr Sharon.

After the lethal Netanya attack – one of the worst in recent months and timed to strike holidaymakers at the beginning of the Passover festival – the Israeli premier will be even less inclined to compromise. This will only intensify Arab anger over the conflict – making it even harder for the US to drum up support in the region for any move against Iraq.

Yesterday the White House tried to retrieve something from the wreckage by disclosing that Crown Prince Abdullah will meet President Bush at his Texas ranch at the end of April. It also hailed as "significant" the Crown Prince's long-trailed speech in Beirut, offering Israel "normal relations" and security. In exchange, the Jewish state would be required to withdraw fully from Arab lands occupied since 1967, to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Even before the latest suicide bombing, these terms were unacceptable to Israel. But Washington was hoping they would at least elicit a counter-offer that might allow peace discussions to resume. That prospect now looks more remote than ever.