With the weakness of both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and with just over a year remaining before US President George W. Bush leaves office, one would think this would be a particularly inopportune moment to launch a new drive to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remembering the failure of Oslo peace agreements and the Camp David summit of 2000, and the ensuing bloodshed, there seems to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of many Israelis for embarking on another diplomatic quest for peace, without at least a more than fair chance that this time around the result will be a success. How, then, does one explain the apparent determination of both Washington and Jerusalem (the Ramallah leadership appears to be more wary) to press ahead with the Annapolis peace conference and the final status peace negotiations that will follow? This was one of the questions experts who addressed the Saban Forum in Jerusalem this week attempted to answer. One theme that emerged was the threat posed by the extremist Iran-Hizbullah-Hamas axis, not only to Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership, but to the Sunni Arab states as well. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that without progress toward Palestinian statehood, a generation of Palestinians would lose hope and the moderate center might collapse. Quartet envoy Tony Blair noted that Islamic extremists use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ensnare moderates. In the past the leaders of Arab states, despite public comments to the contrary, used the Palestinian issue to divert their own populations from more pressing issues. Today, the Arab leaders realize that perpetuating the conflict will only play into the hands of the extremists, and thereby undermine their own legitimacy. Thus, the moon and the sun are aligned. The interests of Israel, the moderate Palestinian leaders, nearly the entire Arab world and, indeed, the international community as a whole are one and the same - to end the festering sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as soon as possible. No one believes the path ahead will be easy. But without progress toward an independent Palestinian state, it looks to be a matter of time before what happened in Gaza in June - a Hamas takeover - is repeated in the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a warning to that effect on Wednesday. Assuming the sides overcome the current difficulties and manage to agree on a joint declaration of principles to be presented at Annapolis, final-status negotiations are set to begin immediately after the Maryland gathering. The Hamas takeover of Gaza has, of course, created yet another obstacle for the architects of the process. Even Israeli officials realize that there can be no lasting peace deal that leaves Gaza and the West Bank separate political entities run by competing factions. The problem is that above and beyond the hope that the Hamas regime will implode, no one knows how to turn the clock back.