While the world's attention was diverted by the elections in Washington this week, a tragedy was taking place in the Middle East. More than a dozen Palestinian women and children were killed in the town of Beit Hanoun when explosives rained down on their homes. Israel has admitted its responsibility. The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says the shelling of the densely packed residential area was due to a radar malfunction. The army apparently intended to hit a nearby orange grove, from which Qassam rockets have been fired on Israel.
On the surface, this changes little. Mr Olmert still refuses to acknowledge that such a disaster was always likely to be a consequence of his reckless policy in Gaza. Firing shells close to civilian areas is inherently dangerous, as Mr Olmert should have learnt when the Israeli air force accidentally hit a number of refugee convoys during the bombing of Lebanon this summer. Mr Olmert also refuses to change tactics, admitting that further such mistakes "may happen" as he seeks to disrupt the crude rocket attacks being launched on Israel from Gaza.
Yet in the wake of the carnage in Beit Hanoun there has also been a flurry of political and diplomatic activity. Mr Olmert has requested a new meeting with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He even says Mr Abbas will be "surprised how far we are prepared to go". There are signs of movement among the Palestinians, too. President Abbas has made contact with the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, an indication that talks on a Palestinian national unity government could be about to restart. In an even more significant move, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, yesterday suggested he may step down if it will bring about an end to the economic blockade on the Palestinian territories.
Such words are encouraging. But they must be translated into action. This is an opportunity for Israel to jettison a policy in Gaza that is plainly not working. There has been no significant reduction in the number of Qassam rockets fired into Israel since these punitive incursions began. The Israeli Labour party, a partner in Mr Olmert's government, has a responsibility to push for change. It acquiesced when the far-right Israeli leader, Avigdor Lieberman, was incorporated into the government. This is also an opportunity to lift the economic misery imposed on the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza.
There is another powerful dynamic at work here. This week's US elections have left the Israeli government more isolated than it has been in a long time. The Democrats, who now control Congress, are no less sympathetic to Israel than the Republicans. But this week has sounded the retreat of the Bush administration's attempts to reshape radically the Middle East through force, a campaign that Israel has actively encouraged. We learnt yesterday that the UN ambassador, John Bolton, is likely to be the next high-profile casualty of the rout of the neoconservatives. A pre-emptive US military strike against Iran, something demanded by Israeli hawks, is now unlikely. James Baker's Iraq Study Group is considering an accommodation with Tehran and Damascus. If adopted by the White House, this will inevitably have significant implications for Israel. On his visit to Washington next week the Israeli prime minister will find a remarkably changed atmosphere from his last trip.
If he is wise, Mr Olmert will attempt to use this to his advantage. Since the Lebanon debacle, his approval ratings have been on the floor. His election promise of withdrawal from the West Bank has been indefinitely suspended. This is an opportunity for Mr Olmert to open up new avenues to peace talks. It must not be spurned.Reuse content