People in the Middle East hope the forthcoming visit of new U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East produces fresh momentum in the U.S. approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If Rice wants to make her first visit to the region as a secretary of state a success, she will have to provide a realistic basis upon which a settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict might be constructed - and a credible timetable.

This goal will require intense American support for the cause of a just and comprehensive peace. President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State have repeatedly claimed that Washington is prepared to assist with the physical, political and economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- after achieving a peaceful solution.

It is correct to focus on this. The Middle East has seen a biased and unbalanced U.S. policy toward the [Israeli-Palestinian] crisis. This has helped create a vicious cycle of violence that has made achieving peace impossible. But now, with the accumulation of U.S. failure in the region -- notably in Iraq, the moment of truth should have come.

For the past two years, the U.S. has refrained from shouldering its responsibilities as the main global superpower and the main sponsor of peace negotiations in the region. Washington can help shore up its credibility in the region by pressuring Israel to completely freeze its settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and to withdraw from occupied Arab territories.

American leadership in this strategic area has never been less trusted and less admired. If Rice does intend to further the casue of peace, she needs to make her upcoming visit to the region the beginning of a new phase in Middle East diplomacy.

There is a chance now for the United States to repair some of the damage it has caused for the goal of peace.