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Impotent America?

JERUSALEM – Israel’s 60th anniversary has come and gone. So, too, has President George W. Bush’s final visit to the Middle East. Amidst the celebrations and the soul-searching, no meaningful breakthrough in the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is visible.

There are immediate reasons why this is so: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government is weak and unpopular, mainly due to the botched 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is even weaker, having lost control of Gaza to Hamas after a violent putsch last year.

On the Palestinian side, this is part of a deeper phenomenon: a longstanding failure to create the institutional structures necessary for nation building. For example, in 1936-1939, a Palestinian uprising against British rule deteriorated into a bloody civil war, in which more Palestinians were killed by their brethren than by the British army or the Jewish self-defense forces. This is repeating itself now in Gaza.

Looking back at 60 years of American involvement in the region, one can discern two scenarios in which the United States can bring the local players to an agreement. Absent these conditions, the US is ultimately powerless.