Some hopeful signs, but the Middle East peace process has barely started

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For the best part of four years, the Middle East peace process has been more or less moribund. The failure of Bill Clinton's initiative in the last months of his presidency ushered in a period of retrenchment on all sides. There were flickers of life, including the launch of the so-called road map, but none lasted long. Now, suddenly, the stars are back in alignment. The peace process, we dare to hope, may be back on track.

Just as, back in 2000-01, each new development seemed to militate against peace, each new development now seems to reinforce it. Then, the failure of the Clinton mediation triggered Ariel Sharon's expedition to Temple Mount, which in turn unleashed the Palestinian uprising. Likud was elected on a security ticket; Mr Sharon became prime minister; George Bush entered the White House and was soon preoccupied with the aftermath of 11 September and his "war on terror". One thing led to another. Having agreed jointly to sponsor the road map, the US and the Europeans disagreed about the usefulness of Yasser Arafat, then they disagreed about Iraq. Tony Blair tried heroically, but not altogether successfully, to keep the Middle East in US sights.

Now, the orientation favours the peace process. Just more than one year ago, Mr Sharon announced - to widespread scepticism - that Israel would leave Gaza and a part of the West Bank within 18 months. No conditions were attached and preparations for the withdrawal appear to be running to schedule. The death of Yasser Arafat removed a disputed figure who was seen by Israel and the US as a major obstacle, if not the obstacle, to meaningful negotiations. The transition passed off smoothly. Mahmoud Abbas was easily elected Palestinian President on a pledge to renew talks with Israel. He seems to have satisfied Mr Sharon that he is trying to rein in the militants. Finally, we have a re-elected George Bush, bogged down in Iraq - concerned, perhaps, to show goodwill to his British ally; grateful, too, no doubt, for a conflict in which US troops are not being killed and diplomatic progress seems newly feasible.

The visit of Condoleezza Rice to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (the first visit by a US Secretary of State to Ramallah since 2002) conveys the message that, after four years of inaction and little interest, Mr Bush is getting serious about the Middle East. Not only did Ms Rice include the region in her first foreign trip as Secretary of State, but as a close confidante of the President she came imbued with his authority. Nor did she arrive empty-handed. She handed over invitations to the White House for Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas - referring to the latter as "President". She had an initial $40m to offer the Palestinians for a "quick action" programme to help create jobs. And she announced the appointment of a US security co-ordinator - to continue the sort of close liaison and shuttle diplomacy that was abandoned two years ago.

Ms Rice also gave the White House blessing to today's Israeli-Palestinian summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hosted by Egypt and Jordan, the summit is the first such since Mr Sharon came to office. Speculation, not discouraged by either side, suggested that the two leaders would announce a formal cessation of violence.

A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the occupied territory, an end to the intifada, a formal Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire, a resumption of serious US engagement ... Such a rapid change of mood and prospects is almost dizzying. At times such as this, it is salutary to recall the nature of the disputes that would remain, even if this best of short-term scenarios were played out without a hitch. There would still be small details such as law and order in Gaza, the actual mechanics of the Israeli withdrawal, the continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the contentious "barrier" being erected by Israel, and its route. We have not even mentioned the occupied West Bank territories, the "final status" of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian return. This conflict is not over until it's over - in truth, the real peace process has barely begun.

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