There is an absence of leadership on all sides in the Middle East crisis

For the dwindling band who still believe that Arabs and Israelis can behave rationally towards each other, this first year of the new millennium has tested that faith to breaking point. First, President Assad, stubborn to the end, prevented a peace agreement between Israel and Syria by rejecting a deal on the Golan Heights that would have given him 99 per cent of what he wanted.

For the dwindling band who still believe that Arabs and Israelis can behave rationally towards each other, this first year of the new millennium has tested that faith to breaking point. First, President Assad, stubborn to the end, prevented a peace agreement between Israel and Syria by rejecting a deal on the Golan Heights that would have given him 99 per cent of what he wanted.

Then, at the Camp David summit, Yasser Arafat did not dare to accept even a framework agreement for a final peace after Ehud Barak had offered more than any Israeli leader had ever offered before; so much indeed that in the process he destroyed his own coalition in the Knesset. And finally, we witnessed the calculated provocation of a visit by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli politician most loathed by the Palestinians, to the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem - a provocation that detonated the latest violence, exactly as Mr Sharon surely knew it would.

Now, some 100 deaths later, a mighty troop of would-be peacemakers has descended upon the region. The cast includes the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Russian Foreign Minister and our own Robin Cook - well-meaning men all, but ultimately impotent, mouthing the same pleas and platitudes as in countless crises past, still evoking that much abused, all but departed shade once called the "peace process".

Matters, to use Kofi Annan's massive understatement, have been "complicated" by the lynching yesterday of the two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah by a Palestinian mob, an event as unsurprising as it was appalling, drawing the equally unsurprising reprisals by the Israelis, and completely eclipsing Mr Annan's modest and hard-won success earlier in securing agreement on a meeting of security officials from both sides.

So what next? The only good news is what is not happening: there is no sign of the war dragging in other Arab countries, no sign that Arab oil producers are contemplating a repeat of their 1973 embargo. But for the Palestinians, history's victims in this tragedy without end, that is scant comfort; merely another way of saying that, beyond demonstrations in Arab capitals and the florid rhetoric in which leaders specialise, they are on their own.

The indisputably bad news is the crying absence of leadership on all sides: an overwhelmed Israeli Prime Minister whose only strength now is the rallying of his people at a time of crisis; a Palestinian leader who, as Ramallah proves, has lost control of his frustrated people; and a lame-duck US President (and the two men vying to succeed him) taking - as American presidents always do when the chips are down - Israel's side in the argument.

The immediate hope can only be for a truce. This will inevitably be followed by a sullen stand-off, punctuated by more bouts of unrest, by attacks and reprisals, and perhaps by further terrorist incidents, of which the suicide attack against the US Navy warship in Yemen yesterday may be just a foretaste.

And then the tide will turn, as it always does. There will shortly be a new man in the White House. Sooner or later there will be new Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The realisation will dawn anew that compromise and peace are better than extremism, hatred and virtual war. First, however, trust must be rebuilt, a process that will take many months, if not years. For those who yet cling to a belief in the power of reason in Middle Eastern affairs, the wait will be unspeakably depressing.

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