Last week an Arab government publicly embraced the idea of democratic elections and asked the United States for its help in holding them -- and the Bush administration, which says Middle Eastern democracy is its top priority, ducked. That's because the idea came from the Palestinian Authority, where a free vote would probably demonstrate that another tenet of Bush policy, the "irrelevance" of Yasser Arafat, is a fiction.

Loath to acknowledge the reality of Arafat's continuing authority, or offend Israel's Ariel Sharon, the White House brushes off the appeals of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia for new elections for a Palestinian parliament and president. In doing so it misses an important opportunity -- one that may offer the only real hope of achieving American aims on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Like it or not (and no reasonable non-Palestinian does), Arafat remains in charge, as he has demonstrated repeatedly during the past year. Qureia and other Palestinian moderates are too weak to move against him or to meet U.S. and Israeli demands that control over security forces be taken away from him. That leaves Bush's "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace stalemated -- a status that is convenient for Sharon but disastrous for Bush's attempts to regain his footing in Iraq and the broader Middle East.

What would happen if the United States were to endorse and facilitate Palestinian elections? To begin with, Bush would get considerable credit around the region for acting to back up his democracy sloganeering and for taking an initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond his indiscriminate backing of Sharon. Both the president's democracy initiative for the "greater" Middle East, due to be unveiled next month, and the cause of elections in Iraq would get a boost.

More important, the stalemate in Ramallah would finally end. Most likely Arafat would be reelected president -- after all, his most formidable rival, Marwan Barghouti, is inside an Israeli prison. But Palestinian voters would almost certainly vote out of office the corrupt and feckless band of Arafat cronies and yes men now serving in the Palestinian parliament. In their place would come a new generation of Palestinian leaders, from both nationalist and religious parties, who mostly oppose their 75-year-old president and would be eager to curb his power. Some would be cronies of Barghouti, who, unlike Arafat, is liable to support a negotiated settlement with Israel. Some would be representatives of Hamas, which would be drawn into the realm of democratic politics and government -- as opposed to insurgency and terrorism -- for the first time.

That, anyway, is the thinking of Palestinian liberals such as Nabil Amr and Khalil Shikaki, who see democracy as desirable in itself and the most practical means for movement toward peace. Shikaki, an academic and pollster who has been tirelessly promoting the elections idea in Ramallah and Washington for the past several months, predicts Arafat's party would get about 40 percent of the seats in a new Palestinian legislature -- just enough to form a government with independents but way down from the 75 percent it has now. Hamas and other Islamic parties, he says, would get about a third. The new prime minister elected by that parliament would have something Qureia entirely lacks now -- an independent base of support and the political clout to stand up to Arafat, or simply ignore him. For the first time, Islamic movements would have a stake in agreeing to and enforcing a cease-fire.

The Bush administration has been fruitlessly pursuing these same goals by other means for the past year. It has pressured Egypt to cobble together Palestinian political accords involving Hamas and demanded that Palestinian prime ministers somehow seize power from Arafat -- initiatives that have gone nowhere. Meanwhile, Bush himself goes on singing the praises of a would-be Palestinian democracy. "The Palestinian people deserve a better future -- and that future can be achieved through democracy," he said in his speech last Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

Why not act on those words? Only because Sharon strongly opposes any Palestinian election. The Israeli warrior still dreams of finishing off his old nemesis by other means, like expulsion or assassination. And the emergence of a strong and responsible Palestinian cabinet would refute the central rationale of current Israeli policy -- that there is no Palestinian "partner" for peace and none can be expected for years. That principle justifies Sharon's plan to unilaterally draw new borders for Israel, fortify them with walls and fences -- and thereby annex far more territory in the West Bank and Jerusalem than Israel could ever hope to obtain through negotiations.

The issue of Palestinian elections is one that tests Bush's commitment to his own priorities. It's not hard to see how a free Palestinian vote could advance Bush's vision of a peace settlement between side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states, and a Middle East increasingly driven by democracy. It's also logical that a proponent of Sharon's very different dream -- of an Israel that imposes its own settlement on a weak and leaderless neighbor -- would oppose any such vote. What's not clear is whether the president is willing to back the American agenda over the objections of his Israeli ally.