W hen Israeli PM Ehud Olmert met President Bush on Tuesday, they confronted the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the dissolution of the Palestinians’ unity government by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Abbas’s appointment of a new government headed by the respected former World Bank official Salam Fayyad. In coordinating policies in the days ahead, Olmert and Bush must distinguish between what has truly changed and what remains the same. They have a responsibility to seize the opportunities that may now open up for the negotiated two-state solution.

Abbas is signaling that he will ask Olmert to empower the new, moderate government of PM Fayyad by implementing benchmarks like the removal of most of the Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank that make daily life for Palestinians insufferable. Another key action Israel could take to bolster Abbas would be to release a number of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds, particularly Marwan Barghouti, who is generally regarded as the most popular Fatah leader. If Olmert is wise, he will act to strengthen Abbas, whom he recognises as a genuine partner for peace. And Bush should encourage a dynamic that promotes peace talks as a way to empower Abbas, and the empowering of Abbas as an indispensable stage on the path to peace talks.