Not even the US can impose peace in the Middle East

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So where are the rest of the quartet, as the US forces the pace of implementation of the Middle East road -map against a daily toll of bombings and assassinations meant to wreck it?

The road-map was designed to prevent extremists holding peace hostage by making the first moves take place in parallel and not contingent on each other. Yet barely has the new Palestinian leader Abu Mazen signed up to peace and the first Israeli settlements, or "outposts", been dismantled than Palestinians killed four Israeli soldiers, Israel attempted to assassinate a political leader of Hamas, a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a bus killing more than a dozen civilians and Israel blasted Gaza with rockets in reply.

So the spotlight turns back not just to the leaders of Israel and Palestine, but to the US and President Bush to see if Washington will still keep its shoulder to the wheel of a Middle East settlement or let the whole bloody cart roll back on its road of terror and hatred.

But does it really make sense to pursue a process imposed entirely from outside? And does it make sense to put all the burden of hope on America. It was only a couple of months ago, after all, that the peace plan was being pushed hard by the Europeans, the United Nations and Russia (the other members of the Quartet), and America seemed to be the one holding back from publishing the road-map.

Yet now we have a process in which all the running is being made by the US President, a President, what's more, who once promised that he'd never get involved in the nitty-gritty of the Middle East's impossible politics.

If Europe has any part, it is being cast as an obstructive one in its continued dealings with PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, the man whom Israel and Washington say cannot be countenanced. As for Russia and the UN, they are noticeable only by their silence. Even Britain, America's ally in the Iraq war and a country with traditionally strong ties to the Arab states most directly involved in the process, doesn't seem to have any part in the play.

The most obvious explanation is that, in the end, it is only Washington that has any real influence on Jerusalem and it is the US that, having conquered Iraq, is now in the catbird seat as far as the Arabs are concerned. The Israelis deem Europe and the United Nations to be basically hostile towards them. And, to the Arabs, Russia and the UN are busted flushes.

But in a wider sense, this dependence on the US for momentum is deeply troubling, at least for anyone hoping for a better, more peaceful Middle East. Compared to, say, North Korea, where Washington has chosen to pursue a diplomatic path together with China, Japan and South Korea, in the Middle East America has adopted a resolutely unilateral course not just over the Palestinian issue but in its relations with the other Muslim states.

Iran is the most glaring example. Where Europe - Britain in particular - has been developing a policy of engagement with the liberals of Iran, the US seems intent on a course of confrontation, if not an intervention for "regime change." Only this week, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, was at it again, accusing Tehran of being bent on developing nuclear weapons, while the commander of the US forces in Iraq was warning Iran not to meddle in the affairs of Iraq.

But Iran is interested, and involved, in Iraq. It is its neighbour. Which doesn't mean it can control events there, not even amongst the Shia, whose loyalty lies with the Arab ayatollahs, not the Iranians. And, of course, Iran is looking to its nuclear possibilities. Given the escalating threats from Washington, it would be mad not to. The question is whether direct external pressure provokes worse behaviour or better.

The neo-conservatives of America are not entirely wrong in their analysis of the Middle East. There is a sizable body of opinion in the Iranian and Arab world, in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, that does want change, that wants democracy. But equally, that opinion feels that it has to define itself against America rather than with it. For the US is associated in the Middle East not with democracy but with the maintenance of royalist and repressive regimes, not with an even-handed approach to the Palestinian question but one overwhelmingly tilted in favour of Israel. When Bush consorts with the Arabs, to whom does he go but the sheikhs of the Gulf, the king of Jordan and the President of Egypt?

You can see it all in the painful picture of present-day Iraq. Most Iraqis are pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein and keen to be getting on with developing communal politics of their own. But in doing so, they need to gain their pride by standing up to the US, and its association with oil and military subjugation, not bowing to it. Bringing back the UN and involving the Europeans is not an admission of defeat nor a reward for the peaceniks. It is simply good sense.

And so with the Middle East. Israel may not trust Europe or the Russians or the UN. But peace only makes sense if Israel can reach accomodation and find a place in the region and if the Palestinians think they have a viable future of their own. Nobody can deliver it for them, but peace would have a better chance if the whole international community was involved, and not just Washington.