Leading article: The perils of a power vacuum

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There is a brutal truth in the Middle East: if there is a political vacuum, the men (and women) of violence will fill it. Yesterday's bloody suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed at least nine Israeli civilians and injured around 60, was yet one more terrible example.

Ever since elections brought Hamas into power in Palestine while elections in Israel produced a minority Kadima government under Ehud Olmert, there has been a profound political vacuum at the heart of the region. There is no point in talking of a faltering in the peace process. There is no peace process. Mr Olmert, caught up in the business of trying to form a coalition government, refuses to talk to Hamas or even to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, struggling with a funding crisis brought about the withdrawal of EU funds and an increasingly violent confrontation with the other Palestinian factions, refuses to moderate its own stance against recognising Israel's right to exist.

Into this vacuum have moved those who believe that only an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" has any credibility and that the tougher you are with your enemies the better you look back at home. In the exchange of rocket fire between Palestinians and Israelis, the Israeli armed forces are now lobbing an estimated 300 shells into northern Gaza every day. While three Israeli civilians were killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at the end of last month, 15 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli shell and air attacks, including a seven year-old boy and a young girl, this month alone.

"As long as it's not quiet here [in Israel], it won't be quiet there [in Gaza]," declared the Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz. And, given past performance, one can only expect Mr Olmert to respond with overwhelming force when he retaliates for the latest killing.

It need not be. If there is a cycle of violence, politicians should act to stop it and their friends and allies should press them to do so. Attempts to get Hamas to assert some authority within the Palestinian community have not been helped by the EU's withdrawal of aid and Mr Olmert's statement yesterday that he regarded Hamas as partially responsible for the bombing.

That does not appear to be the case. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and Hamas has, on the whole, kept to its ceasefire announced several months ago. It should now be supported, not undermined. At the same time, Kadima's potential allies on the left and centre need to urge restraint on Mr Olmert. There are possibilities, if wiser heads can prevail. If not, the fate of the Middle East will remain in the hands of any bomber who wants to create chaos and any general or politician who wants to retaliate in kind.

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