This conference will not solve the problems of the Middle East - but it can still do some good

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The angry recriminations between the Palestinians and Israelis that followed the suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday, demonstrate just how distant anything resembling a stable settlement in the Middle East remains. But while the blast, which killed four Israelis, has brought the new Palestinian leader's honeymoon period to an end, it does not - thankfully - appear to have inflicted fundamental damage on the peace process. That the first reaction of all parties on Friday was to try to protect the truce is a good sign.

The Israeli government has not, of course, been inactive. Ariel Sharon called, once again, for Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on Islamic Jihad, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the operation. He has also frozen plans for a security handover of certain West Bank towns to the Palestinians Authority. But there are no plans for a large-scale operation by the Israeli military in response to the attack. This shows that Ariel Sharon is willing to continue negotiations. And attempts by Mr Abbas to blame "a third party" (widely understood to be Syria) for the bombing, suggests that he does not want to see the process upset either. The truth is that, despite Friday's attack, both leaders know that public opinion in both communities is not in favour of a resumption of hostilities. For now, the roadmap survives.

The context for this week's international conference in London, intended to provide financial and material support for the Palestinian Authority, is not, therefore, as grim as it might have been. It is true that the conference will not be the great turning point, promised by Tony Blair when he first announced it last year. That was obvious from the moment Israel declared that it would not attend. And there is a suspicion that at least part of the point of the London summit is to make the British Prime Minister look good in the run-up to a general election.

But, as an exercise, this conference could have its uses. The participation of Kofi Annan, the World Bank and 24 foreign ministers means that it will be a truly international gathering. If the conference makes the international community feel it has a stake in the success of Mr Abbas it will be no bad thing.

Two proposals are likely to emerge from the summit. Firstly, that short-term aid should be given to the ravaged Palestinian economy. Secondly that a new security group should be established in the Occupied Territories, headed by the United States General, William Ward. This will mean the United States taking on greater responsibility for ensuring that Mr Abbas has the resources he needs to police Palestinian territories.

It is significant that Condoleezza Rice will be in attendance. The presence of the US Secretary of State means that the conference should have clout. It is already clear that the Bush administration is committed to the peace process in a way that it has not been before. President Bush has a political stake in the success of Mr Abbas, having backed him as a successor to Yasser Arafat. This conference is another chance for the US to demonstrate that it can be an honest broker between the two sides.

But, as ever, the success or failure of diplomacy will be judged by what happens on the ground. Will the roadmap move on to its next stage, or will it stick? The answer depends on a number of factors. It remains to be seen whether Friday's suicide bombing was an isolated incident, or part of a concerted attempt by militants to sabotage the peace process. It also remains to be seen what success Mr Abbas will have in reforming the corrupt institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Then there is the question of Israeli intentions. Does Ariel Sharon really want a viable Palestinian state, or merely a more secure Israel? None of these questions will be resolved in London this week, but this conference provides another welcome opportunity for the world to nudge things in the right direction.

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