The reasons why we should still be hopeful about the Middle East

Yes, Abu Mazenhas resigned, but do we think we have heard the last of him? This may prove a stratagem in his contest with Arafat
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Crisis is an overused word, especially in the Middle East. It first appeared in a headline during the Book of Exodus. It is now reappearing for the umpteenth thousandth time, with an apparent justification. With bombings in Iraq punctuated by daily attritional killings and the Palestinian peace process under threat, there would appear to be grounds for gloom.

If this is the case, appearance is not reality. There are grounds for caution, not gloom. Over the past year, everything important in the Middle East has gone much better than anyone but the most naive optimist would have predicted (there are a few of those, including senior Pentagon officials). Dangers still exist, but they are not new - unlike the grounds for hope. In recent decades, "hope" is not a word which has often been appropriate to Middle Eastern affairs. It is now on the agenda.

Certainly, the Palestinian peace process is in difficulty; whoever expected otherwise? But we have an American President who, unlike his predecessors, continually acknowledges the need for a Palestinian state and who is throwing US momentum behind the drive for an honourable settlement. Yes, Abu Mazen has resigned, but does anyone think we have heard the last of him? This may prove to be a stratagem in his contest with Yasser Arafat.

Apropos of Arafat, Mr Bush's attempts to shun him have proved much more successful than initially seemed likely. There was a powerful conventional wisdom drawing on many examples: Gandhi, Kenyatta, Makarios, Mandela. You try to ignore insurgent leaders or even put them in prison, but it never works. Eventually, you had to talk to them. Mr Arafat may have been a squalid nuisance, but he could not be marginalised at the behest of the United States and the Israelis.

Nor has he been, unfortunately. But his influence is not as great as it used to be. Thanks in large measure to George Bush, there is now some prospect of a pluralist, post-Arafat Palestinian politics. Abu Mazen, or someone like him, will be back.

And so will the road-map. For 10 years, Israel and Palestine have been pinioned by a cruel and murderous paradox. All men of goodwill who have addressed themselves to the problem more or less agree on the solution. It was laid out in the Oslo Accords and then in the road-map. There is no alternative. Sooner or later, it will have to be implemented, or the region will drown in blood. Mr Bush is doing more than anyone else in world to keep the blood at bay. He should be saluted: fat chance.

He should also be saluted on Iraq. Yes, there have been mistakes. It was predictable that the American armed forces would not be as good as we are at hearts and minds. It was less predictable that they should prove so inept at restoring essential services. They did not realise that progress in Iraq equals electrification plus water supplies. As a result of American incompetence, some Iraqis have been suffering almost as badly as tens of thousands of elderly French people did in August.

But that is only part of the picture. The torture chambers are out of business. There is a rudimentary Iraqi government. The country has not disintegrated into ethnic warfare. Iraqis are impatient, because the Americans have not worked miracles. In 10 years, however, all this may come to seem like a miracle, or the nearest approach to it that human affairs allow. The Americans are trying to create the preconditions for a free and prosperous Iraq.

It may not work. As in Palestine, the threat is asymmetric warfare. As long as those who do not want peace can make bombs and are willing to die, an explosive situation can easily be transformed from metaphor into literal truth. In both jurisdictions, the peacemakers will need luck.

That is not a commodity which the UN could supply. The Americans would like other nations to share their burdens, but the UN can make only a limited contribution. Some of its aid agencies could supply expertise. Some of its nations with a domestic military tradition could provide troops. But there would be no place for the hapless battalions from lesser countries which turned up in the Balkans, shuffled around in cowed demoralisation, sold petrol and equipment, were delighted to draw UN pay, and would have been worse than useless if there had been any fighting.

Nor is there any role for the UN's political direction. Everyone knows what the US mission is: to liberate Iraq, to eradicate surviving elements of Saddam Hussein's regime and to try to keep the peace while rebuilding the infrastructure. Above all, the Americans want to create political conditions which would enable them to withdraw as rapidly as possible. There is only one danger: not that they will turn into imperialists, but that they will leave too early. This is a further reason for hoping that Mr Bush is re-elected. He understands the need for America to discharge the responsibilities which it has incurred, to the Middle East and to history.

So there is no reason to quarrel with the Americans' assessment of the Iraqi mission. It should be shared by all sensible people who want to bring peace to the region and therefore enhance the security of the rest of the world. We would all be much safer if the Middle East ceased to be a moral swamp. But there are two great sources of dissent of this view. The first is the Islamic extremists who hate the thought of Muslims living free and prosperous lives. They have only one ambition towards the huddled masses of the Middle East: to keep them huddled, so that they will continue to supply large numbers of recruits for suicidal terrorist ventures.

The second source of dissent is the man who has become the terrorists' most useful ally: Jacques Chirac. From time to time over the past few months, a nightmare has haunted Paris, which has nothing to do with old people perishing from thirst and heatstroke. The fear which has overshadowed M. Chirac's holiday was the fear that the Americans might win.

If the Palestinian peace process went well, while Iraqi slowly evolved in a harmonious direction, American moral authority would be greatly enhanced. Any chance the French might have had of disrupting US hegemony would have gone. So M. Chirac is ready to exploit any opportunity to disrupt America's plans. With the aid of his useful idiot ally, Gerhard Schröder, he is determined to try to sabotage America's attempts to secure useful assistance from the UN. He would like to force Mr Bush to pay an unacceptable price for any help which he does receive: personal humiliation. Even by French standards, this pursuit of low motives in the face of great events is contemptible.

As the Middle East has always been in a state of crisis, there is no reason to despair at recent developments. There is still a way through, which could lead to a new crisis, unprecedented in Middle Eastern history. This will be a crisis of hope.