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US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, a key player on Washington's Mideast policy team, postponed a trip to the region at the last minute on Wednesday because of what were officially described as "scheduling problems."
He was expected to visit Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states to discuss the massive aid the US has planned for the region: a $30 billion, 10-year military aid package to Israel; a $13 billion military deal to Egypt over the next decade; and an arms sale that the press has put at $20 billion, but which Burns himself has said is still being put together, to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf states.
Burns is now scheduled to arrive sometime before the end of the month. But even though he didn't come as planned, on Monday he starred in a State Department "coffee break conversation" podcast, and said something that goes a long way toward explaining much of the recent diplomatic activity.
Asked a question about the proposed Saudi arms deal, Burns said, "It's my hope that the Congress will decide what past congresses have decided, and that is that in addition to our relationship with Israel, we have very important relations with the moderate Arab countries - the countries that are going to be critical to building a long-term peace with Israel, the countries that will be critical to sustaining a democratic Lebanon and to trying to help the Iraqi government get on its feet and try to push back against Iranian attempts to destabilize their region. These are our friends."
These friends, he continued, "don't always look like us in terms of our democracy. They don't always act like us. Sometimes we even disagree with them. But for the most part, they're countries that have the same interests that we do, and you can't get along in the world without friends. These are our friends in the Arab world and so we need to be supportive of them."
For those looking for an explanation as to why the US is pushing so hard to support Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, it is because Washington views him as a genuine friend.
For those wondering why the US is pushing forward with a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, even though the Saudis aren't exactly doing the US's bidding in Iraq, it is because the US needs friends.
And for those wondering why President George W. Bush seems hell-bent on a regional meeting in the fall to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli issue, it is to bring all the US friends together under one happy roof - to cement a new alliance of US regional buddies.
FROM AN Israeli perspective, the purpose of this international meeting is still not clear. Okay, the US needs it for its interest in cementing a moderate coalition in the Middle East, but what does Israel get out of it?
Monday's meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas produced commitments to talk about "fundamental principles" and "frameworks" - principles and frameworks that would presumably come up at the international meeting. But nobody is saying publicly what any of that means.
In fact, the Israelis and the Palestinians have fundamental differences as to what those fundamental principles are. Are they "Palestinian institution-building," as Israel says, or a willingness to discuss Jerusalem, refugees, and borders, as the Palestinians maintain?
On July 16, when Bush gave birth to the idea of a regional conference, he kept everything intentionally vague. "The world can do more to build the conditions for peace," he said. "So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians, and their neighbors in the region. Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice will chair the meeting. She and her counterparts will review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions. They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state."
The idea, since then, seems to be morphing into something larger.
While the night after Bush's address, sources in the Prime Minister's Office found comfort in his reference to an "international meeting," - not an international peace conference - Rice referred to it as an "international conference," not a regional meeting, during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia. A nod to the Saudis? Perhaps, because the US - as Burns said - needs friends, and the Saudis have made it clear they want the meeting/conference to talk about substantive issues, not just be a "photo-op" for Israeli domestic political considerations.
As to the participants, this is still very much up in the air, with the main question revolving around Syria. Can one hold an international meeting on the Middle East without Syria? Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos thinks not, and according to EU Ambassador to Israel Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, Spain is the leading force in the EU trying to get an invitation for Syria.
But if Syria is invited, what of Bush's terms of reference that the meeting will include those "who support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties"?
With Damascus essentially serving as the world headquarters for Hamas and other anti-Israel terrorist groups, can one really say that Syria "rejects violence"? But if Syria is not invited, what will Damascus - and its cohorts Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - do to ensure the conference fails?
In short, here we are on the cusp of fall, Bush's target for the international event, and it is not clear yet who will attend and what will be discussed.
Cibrian-Uzal proffered an idea, when he said at a press briefing this week that in the EU's point of view, the conference would mark the end of one chapter - an obvious reference to the Palestinian violence that began in September 2000 - and usher in another: a chapter in which full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could begin.
One problem with this theory is that it seems detached from reality.
Has the violence stopped? Hardly. The IDF's nightly West Bank operations to thwart terrorist actions are a testament to that.
The violence hasn't stopped; what has decreased dramatically is the terrorist organizations' ability to carry out attacks. Fayad's government has taken some tentative first steps to disarm militias and build up capacity, but it isn't exactly "uprooting the terrorist infrastructure."
It's not that the terrorists don't want to carry out attacks; it's just that because of Israeli actions, it is much more difficult for them to do so.
SAYING THAT the international conference is where the negotiations will begin in earnest is also acknowledgement that the road map has essentially been ditched. The importance of the road map, from Jerusalem's point of view, was that it enshrined the idea that one does not negotiate until one has security, and that the area's tragic history has proven - perhaps counterintuitively - that security doesn't follow from promises of peace, but rather peace may flow from security.
Olmert, who ran in the last election as an Ariel Sharon disciple, must realize this, but is still being swept forward to this international conference. Why? Mainly because the US wants him to. The US needs this conference to cement together an Arab moderate coalition to help serve its greater interests in the region, and believes that the best cement is to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
As crazy as it sounds, when US policymakers look around this area and see the quagmire in Iraq, the devil in Iran and the difficulties in Lebanon, the one area where they think they may be able to make some kind of headway is right here. And one of the reasons is that two politically weak leaders, Olmert in Israel, and Abbas in the PA, are extremely dependent on the US.
With the Winograd Commission report looming heavy over his head, with a sudden hint this week that some of the criminal allegations against him may begin working their way back into the headlines and with an abysmal approval rating, Olmert needs to look around and see a friendly face somewhere. That somewhere is Washington, and he won't want to jeopardize that by doing anything to spoil that intentional conference party.
Likewise Abbas. The US, which loves Fayad, is Abbas's life line, the dike keeping the Hamas flood from overrunning the West Bank. He will not say no to Washington.
The Saudis are less dependent on the US, though one of the reasons for the proposed US arms deal seems to be to create more dependence - which is why they are placing their own conditions on attendance. These conditions include the dealing with substantive issues, which is essentially a leap-frog over those annoying first stages of the road map, and - according to an article this week by Hanna Siniora, the Palestinian co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information - also some kind of Hamas participation in the event.
The problem with the conference, said Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia who led a group of 19 congressman during talks with top-tier Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, is with all the noise it is already generating.
"I'm very concerned about the expectations surrounding such a conference," he said in an interview. "I believe that it is wise for us to stick to the sequential nature of the original road map, and the vision of our president in insisting that any Palestinian state wait for the Palestinians to denounce terrorist violence, to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and to recognize all former agreements entered into by the PA. For me, calling for a regional conference at this point, without demonstrable evidence that those prerequisites are taking place, may cause an elevation of expectations that could be damaging."
Regardless, preparations for the conference are well under way.