When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her 911 mission to the Middle East this week, she will have more on her agenda than just the urgent need to rescue the Gaza disengagement plan and put the shattered cease-fire back together.
The Bush administration's top foreign-policy priorities in that part of the world - Iraq and democratic reform - will also be on the line.
After four years of letting the Arab-Israeli crisis simmer on the back burner, the administration has pledged itself to fulfilling President Bush's commitment to establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Just when things looked promising, the five-month-old Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire exploded last week when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a shopping mall in Netanya, and Hamas terrorists dramatically increased their barrages of Qassam rockets and mortars against Israeli communities in Gaza and southern Israel.
After months of futilely demanding that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority crack down on the terror network and disarm the extremists - as required by the U.S. road map and endorsed by the P.A. itself - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to step in. Islamic Jihad and Hamas have been pushing to see just how far they could press Israel; last week, they found out as Israel resumed its policy of targeted assassinations and sweeping arrests.
The Israeli army is poised for a full scale assault into Gaza if Abbas fails to keep his vow to prevent the missile attacks, though Sharon is unlikely to give the order before the Rice visit.
Abbas' approach to terror has been a tragic failure: His reliance on friendly persuasion and prayers that the bad guys will behave was a doomed policy from the start. He fears he doesn't have the political backing to crack down, and if he tries, he could spark a civil war. He fails to fully appreciate that Hamas poses an existential threat to him - not to Israel.
Hamas' goal is to seize control of the P.A. through the ballot box. The group's success in recent municipal elections suggested that its candidates would do well in parliamentary elections originally scheduled for this week, so Abbas postponed them indefinitely.
A Palestinian government headed by an elected Islamist party would present an excruciating dilemma for Israel and the United States. With Bush's call for democratic elections in Arab states as a cornerstone of his foreign policy, the president will find it awkward to reject the will of the Palestinian people if Hamas emerges triumphant in fair elections. And on the Israeli right, politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, who say Israel should only negotiate with democratic states, will have to find a new excuse to avoid any peace negotiations.
The top priority for Palestinian extremists in the latest violence is not to take over the P.A. but to bolster public support. They're vying for bragging rights for the Israeli pullout from Gaza. They want to be able to say that Israel didn't withdraw voluntarily, but was driven out under fire with its tail between its legs. Their message is that their brand of violence is what drove the Zionists out of Lebanon and now Gaza - and that's the only way to get them out of the West Bank and eventually all of Israel.
And they are getting reinforcement for that argument from a very unlikely source - the Israeli far-right and its American supporters, who insist on referring to the disengagement using the same term the Islamists use: retreat.
Tragically, much of the Muslim world - and probably even Europe - will buy into that myth, but the real audience Hamas is targeting is the Palestinians.
Sharon is determined to send just the opposite message. Israel is leaving and is strong, and to prove it, he's stepped up the attacks on the terrorists.
So far, he's avoided more serious escalation, hoping that Abbas will show some initiative, especially since his own survival is at stake.
President Bush has latched himself to establishing a Palestinian state, and he sees the Gaza disengagement as a critical first step in reviving the peace process. Failure there will injure his broader policy in the region, particularly Iraq and democratic reform in the Arab world. In effect, his administration's credibility is on the line.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.