GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Israel last July in an unsuccessful attempt to broker an end to that nation's brief war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, she described the turmoil as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."
But as Rice travels to Israel on Wednesday on a high-profile peace initiative, the new Middle East has a new political fact: The Islamist Hamas party took full control of the Gaza Strip in June, splitting the Palestinian Authority in two.
As much as Rice wants to isolate Hamas, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization, any diplomatic drive must confront the fact that Islamist forces control the coastal Mediterranean region that was meant to be a cornerstone of a new Palestinian state.
"Nobody can make peace without Gaza," said Hirsch Goodman, a senior fellow with the National Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Nobody can make peace without 1.5 million Palestinians. You can't heal a body with cancer without treating it."
For now, however, the Bush administration and Israel are treating Hamas like a tumor that's too big to remove: They're ignoring it and lavishing all their attention on their preferred Palestinian leader, 72-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
After years of foot-dragging, Israel and the United States are moving more quickly than ever to help the pragmatic Abbas in the West Bank:
_ Israel, the United States and much of the world have established political ties with the caretaker government that Abbas created with questionable legality.
_ Israel has released millions of dollars in frozen Palestinian tax money, allowing Abbas to pay tens of thousands of struggling government workers who haven't received regular paychecks since before Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority last year.
_ Israel has granted amnesty to more than 150 Palestinian militants who turned in their guns and has freed 250 Palestinian prisoners, most of them allied with Abbas' Fatah movement. Last week, Israel reportedly approved the import of 1,000 rifles for Abbas' security forces to help them ensure that Hamas isn't able to do in the West Bank what it did in Gaza.
_ There's renewed talk in Israel about pulling back from major West Bank cities and turning over control to Palestinian forces.
The goal is to provide Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, with the political, military and economic support he needs to persuade voters to reinstall his fractured Fatah party as the leader of the Palestinian Authority in early elections.
At the same time, Israel and the Bush administration are counting on Abbas to follow through on long-standing promises to reform Fatah and end the rampant corruption that was at the heart of its 2006 electoral loss to Hamas.
The drive toward new elections ignores not only the potential illegality of such a vote under Palestinian law but also the fact that Hamas is likely to block early elections in the Gaza Strip.
It's also possible that Israel could work to thwart the elections by cracking down on Hamas and arresting candidates.
"How are we going to guarantee the result of the election in the West Bank?"
asked Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader who served as foreign minister in the first Hamas government. "How is Abu Mazen going to carry out an election in the Gaza Strip? Without a national agreement, no election can take place."
Some worry that the "West Bank first" strategy inevitably will propel Israel toward a military showdown with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
"He who says that we must put all our money on Fatah must assume that, at some given moment in the future, it may be necessary to militarily confront Hamas in a massive way," said Efraim Halevy, the former director of Israel's Mossad spy agency.
"With Hamas you have to do one of two things: Either you have to deal with them or you have to utterly and completely destroy them," said Halevy, who was among a minority to call on Israel to open talks with Hamas when the Palestinian group took political control last year.
"All this is in preparation for a major showdown with Hamas. And with all the arms that have been amassed in the Gaza Strip, it's not going to be a knock-over."
Yossi Alpher, a former negotiator for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said the best thing diplomats could do right now was focus on the West Bank and leave the problem of Gaza for later.
"You don't deal with Gaza now; you have to reduce your expectations," said Alpher, a co-director of the Web site bitterlemons.org. "You don't really have a solution for Gaza right now, so you see if you can do something with the West Bank."