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Welcome, Madame Secretary.

Welcome to Israel, a country whose byzantine electoral system has managed only to elect an outgoing premier-for-life.

Welcome to a nation in which, with apologies to a former Louisiana legislator, half the country is under fire, and the other half is under indictment.

Welcome to a peace process which, in the manner of lies, damn lies, and statistics, seems determined to prove that there are impossibilities, absolute impossibilities, and Two States for Two Peoples.

Welcome, that is, to the political campaign of your life.

At this, the outset of your tenure at State, the campaign for peace in the Holy Land gives every appearance of a diplomatic offensive. Don't be fooled. You and your president must approach this challenge for what it is: a campaign for swing states.

At stake is nothing less than the conflict the world wants most to solve.

To prevail, you will need to successfully contend with six swing states. There are, first of all, the Four States for Four Peoples located within the cramped confines of the Holy Land itself - two of them Palestinian -one in Hamas-ruled Gaza, one in the Fatah-led West Bank - and two of them Israeli - one for settlers, one for the rest of us.

Then, for good measure, there are the swing states of Syria and Iran.

These six are the keys to Middle East peace, and the reason for its absence.

The conflict is so hidebound, the sides so exhaustively jaded, that you will need every ounce of creativity, energy, sensitivity, wiles, wisdom, charm and against-the-squall optimism to make a half an ounce of headway.

Your opening moves have been useful. The hundreds of millions of dollars in aid earmarked for reconstruction in Gaza recasts the U.S. policy message in a way that will be difficult for Israel and the Palestinians to ignore. It will lend fresh impetus and urgency to solving the logjam over border crossings and the critical need to speed reconstruction aid into the Strip.

One left-field reason that U.S. the aid may actually foster movement: Americans, who have been notably understanding of wide-scale Israeli attacks on heavily populated areas, may take heightened interest in the rebuilt structures, and having them remain intact. This is, in turn, a potentially powerful incentive for Israel to seek alternatives to the devastation of the recent war, whose effectiveness inn the service of Israel's interest has yet to be demonstrated.

Herewith an overview of the swing states.

1. EXODUS ISRAEL In essence, the nation within the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel.

THE UPSIDE: Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, favor a viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank.

In fact, given Avigdor Lierberman's explicit endorsement last week of such a state, a clear majority of 70 Knesset members in the 120-seat house may be said to favor such an eventual solution [Kadima (28 seats), Yisrael Beiteinu (15), Labor (13), Hadash (4), Ra'am-Ta'al (4), Meretz (3), and Balad (3)

THE RUB: Qassam and Grad/Katyusha rocket attacks in the wake of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip have gutted all Israeli popular support for a withdrawal in the West Bank in the foreseeable future.

THE WAY FORWARD: High energy, under-the-radar diplomacy with presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Allow him to pay domestic lip service where needed, but encouraging him to quietly but powerfully explore a peace deal with Syria and take back-channel local steps like gumming up new settlement construction in bureaucratic mire [see next].

2. THE ORANGE FREE STATE The settlement empire in Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and East Jerusalem.

THE UPSIDE: The financial crisis along with fringe anti-government extremism on the part of a small but vocal segment of the settler population has cooled general Israeli sympathy and support for fostering settlements.

THE RUB: Despite the obvious differences in form and function, settlement construction inflames Palestinians in much the same way that Qassam rockets infuriate Israelis, placing peace that much farther from reach. Meanwhile, the rise of radical Islam among Palestinians props up the settlement enterprise, adding weight to the basic settler argument that Arabs covet Tel Aviv as part of a Palestinian state every bit as much as they claim Jenin and Nablus.

THE WAY FORWARD: Continued U.S. support for and coordination of successful Palestinian Authority police security responsibility in Arab population centers of the West Bank, fostering greater autonomy, less friction, and tangible movement toward future Palestinian sovereignty.

Also, savvy U.S. encouragement of concessions to boost employment and economic growth for Palestinians in the West Bank, at the same time ensuring that this does not come at the expense of the security of settlers. Also, the U.S. should lend planning assistance toward a future two-state solution, with settlement concentrated in enclaves along the 1948-67 Green Line borders, the geographic option left open for a Palestinian state including part of Jerusalem as a capital, and free movement for Palestinians north and south in the West Bank.

3. QASSAMISTAN The Gaza Strip, more rigorously Islamic and poorer by far than the West Bank. Herein dubbed Qassamistan, and not Hamastan, in commemoration of the lethal role that the rockets have played in the death of the peace process.

THE RUB, WHICH MAY ALSO BE THE UPSIDE: Hamas, sole ruler of Gaza since bitter civil warfare with Fatah in mid-2007, is itself divided at least three ways. Once a movement with iron discipline and one voice, Hamas' leadership is shared with varying levels of ease between the Damascus-based Political Bureau of Khaled Meshal and his deputy Musa Abu Marzuk, the founding Gaza branch of Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, and Izz el-Din al-Qassam, the group's shadowy but influential military wing.

Despite an unwillingness to amend the group's frankly and even murderously anti-Semitic charter, there have been voices within the group suggesting that Hamas would be willing to reach an accommodation with Fatah and even, on a level which allows it its own lip service, an eventual co-existence with Israel.

THE WAY FORWARD: Intelligent and largely unseen U.S. diplomacy to help forge a Palestinian unity government which Israel can suck up and live with, so that negotiations on a wide range of sub-peace-deal issues (e.g., aid distribution, prisoner exchange including Gilad Shalit, border crossing policy) can take place without one Palestinian side, or Israel, intentionally scuttling any talks between any two of the others. Key: An effective Egyptian role in mediation and in cooling cross-border attacks.

THE DUCHY OF UPPER PALESTINE East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Culturally and to an extent linguistically different from Gaza, and with a legacy of some condescension toward the Strip and its residents.

THE RUB: Fatah's long history of corruption and double dealing has harmed its standing with Palestinians. Many younger residents of the West Bank have opted for radical Islam and the eventual erasure of the Jewish state.

THE UPSIDE: Successive Palestinian disappointments this decade have effectively eroded support for every Palestinian faction in existence, leading to signs of a new openness for solutions to the conflict, along with hope for economic stability.

THE WAY FORWARD: Fostering the Fatah-ruled West Bank as a new model for an eventual independent state. Convincing Israel to let Fatah-PA control security (and suppress the Islamic Jihad and armed Hamas units) in the West Bank, rather than having Israeli soldiers undermine PA authority in high-profile IDF raids.

5. SYRIA Arguably the most important swing state of them all.

THE RUB: Damascus still plays host to a range of ultra-militant Palestinian organizations. It remains allied to Iran and, as such, is crucial to the power Hezbollah holds in Lebanon.

THE UPSIDE: Syria, increasingly cash-starved as falling oil prices sap Iran's treasury, is desperate to end its international isolation, and fervently desires Washington's help to that end. Netanyahu has flirted with the prospect of peace with Syria in the past, knowing that only a Likud-led government could command the clout needed to give up the Golan. Were such a peace concluded, Hezbollah would lose much of its strength in Lebanon, and there would be strong Palestinian public pressure for a final peace as well.

THE WAY FORWARD: Encourage Netanyahu to pick up where he left off in the 1990s.

6. IRAN

THE RUB: Nuclear weapons research, ballistic missile research, lobbying and backing Hezbollah, Hamas, for proxy wars.

THE UPSIDE: Plummeting oil revenues, economic crisis, long-term effects of inflation and imbalance of wealth, an internet-aware younger generation. An election later this year, which could topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

THE WAY FORWARD: Keep back channels open to Tehran, while supporting Netanyahu, should he pick up with Syria.

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