Elusive peace: Bush needs a bigger Middle East negotiating table

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The Middle East peace process that President Bush purported to have restarted at Annapolis in November currently seems fated to die under the guns of Gaza.

Hamas won democratic elections in the Palestinian territories in January 2006. It then defeated President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement in battle in Gaza in June of that year. Neither Israel nor the United States, trailing along, ever accepted the reality of Hamas' victories and continued to seek to starve it out of power in Gaza.

When Mr. Bush organized the Annapolis conference to try to restart the Middle East peace process last November, Hamas was not invited. Talks started between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Hamas then began lobbing homemade and more sophisticated rockets into Israel. Israel hit back with air strikes and tank incursions into Gaza.

Both sides took casualties. The Palestinians took more, but Hamas held on, just as Hezbollah had held on in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 when the Israelis invaded there. Now, Mr. Abbas has felt obliged to break off the talks with Mr. Olmert because of the pounding Israel has administered to the Palestinians in Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has traveled to the region, but has declined to call for a cease-fire, considering such an act to lend credibility to Hamas.

She could put the whole peace process back on the rails by reconvening the Annapolis conference, but this time with Hamas at the table, inside the tent. To do so is not to give legitimacy to Hamas' point of view. It is to acknowledge that it exists as a force, and that it is capable of blocking the peace process if excluded from it.

The logic seems simple, but is so far eluding Mr. Bush's administration. Bold steps in quest of peace are in general praiseworthy. It is time for one.


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