WASHINGTON: Two months ago, as the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was making her debut as the Bush administration’s point person on the Middle East, an Israeli lawyer visited Washington.

The lawyer, Dov Weissglass, was chief of staff for Ariel Sharon, and as evidence of the Israeli prime minister’s trust, arrived with the authority to offer a compromise. The Israeli army would desist from assassinations of Palestinians — aside from so-called “ticking bombs”, believed to be on the verge of launching an attack.

For the Palestinian Authority, which has long argued that assassinations — especially of political figures — are a provocation to the suicide bombers and damage its efforts to rein in the militants, the promise was a significant step.

On Thursday, that understanding was destroyed as Israel assassinated the man who was the public face of Hamas, Ismail Abu Shanab. Also destroyed were the immediate hopes of returning to the weeks of relative calm which prevailed before a Palestinian suicide bomber this week killed 20 ultra-orthodox Jews on their way home from prayer.

Hours after Abu Shanab was killed, all three armed Palestinian factions abandoned their ceasefire.

Condoleezza Rice now faces her most significant test since assuming personal charge of peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians, but the Bush administration is on trial as well, to prove that it is willing to give real force to a policy that had lost its way long before the bomb went off this week.

At the UN, the secretary of state, Colin Powell, warned Israel and the Palestinians that they had no future outside the vague outline that the Bush administration called a roadmap to a Palestinian state in 2005. “At the end of the roadmap is a cliff that both sides will fall off,” he said. “A way has to be found to go forward.”

In Washington, officials said this week’s bloody events had set off a flurry of phone calls and Mr Powell and Ms Rice had held conversations with Mr Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas. America’s envoy to the region, John Wolf, was also dispatched to Gaza. President Bush spoke to the Israeli prime minister.

But there was no immediate sign of a specific strategy to try to haul the Israelis and Palestinians back from the brink. “Basically what we are saying is that right now we are intensely engaged,” a US official said. “We don’t want to focus right now on who is doing what, and just to get the road map moving again.”

Thursday’s US response to the drama offered only a mild rebuke to Mr Sharon. The White House said merely that Israelis needed to “take into account the effect that actions they take have on the peace process”. Mr Abbas was urged again to take “immediate steps to dismantle terrorist capabilities”.

The tragedy for both peoples on Thursday was that there had been signs that Mr Abbas had been poised to do just that before the assassination of Abu Shanab. Overnight he had secured the endorsement of Yasser Arafat to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad for violating the ceasefire with the Jerusalem bombing.

The tentative plan called for the arrest of the militants involved in the bombing, shutting Hamas mosques, and disabling its patronage network of schools and hospitals, which are the bedrock of its popular support.

In Washington it was seen as highly unlikely that Mr Sharon would have sought approval for the assassination. Instead, he acted with his customary shrewdness for assessing how far to go without earning a reproof from Mr Bush. Although US officials privately rue the assassination — and its immediate outcome — Mr Sharon could have gone even further. Israeli forces moved into Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, but they did not occupy Bethlehem; that would have been a reversal of President Bush’s roadmap.

Instead, Mr Sharon proceeded as he has during the past few months since the roadmap’s inauguration, delivering just enough to avoid a reprimand from Washington.

And, so far, that has not been very much. “On the major territorial questions, you can’t point to any substantial progress whatsoever,” said Geoff Aronson, the director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which closely monitors illegal Jewish settlement building in the occupied territories.

Although Mr Sharon has twice promised the White House to dismantle wildcat Jewish settlements — the ones even Israel will not authorize — as Mr Aronson notes: “For every outpost that has been taken down, it seems that something else has gone up in its place.”

The Bush administration has also failed to check the construction of Israel’s security barrier, which extends Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by an additional three miles at some points.

Nor has it managed to press Mr Sharon to speed up the release of Palestinian prisoners, as part of the confidence-building measures called for in the roadmap.

Over the weeks, the paralysis has weakened Mr Abbas’s hand, and tipped the balance in favour of extremists such as Hamas. “Hamas has been very attuned to what the popular base will support,” Mr Aronson said. “So it is only logical to assume that if the fruits of diplomacy were to win the overwhelming support of the Palestinian public, organizations such as Hamas would have less support than they have.”

The pressures on Mr Abbas will almost certainly mount as the US and Israel reiterate their demands for a crackdown on militants. The perils of such a course are clear. Following Abu Shanab’s assassination, Mr Abbas faced demands from Hamas that he step down, or go into exile.

“I think the administration understands where Abu Mazen is coming from in terms of trying to deal with Hamas, but when you have something like this bus bombing it becomes awfully hard for Abu Mazen to defend his policy of how he is dealing with the militant group,” said Edward Abington, a former US diplomat who serves as an adviser to the Palestinian Authority.

“What we have now and have had frankly since 1994 is that military groups have the ability to totally dominate the agenda through violence.”

Whatever course of action Mr Abbas or the Bush administration embark on now, the next destination on the roadmap is almost certainly more violence.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.