It seems to happen about every 10 years. The cycle of serious US interest in moving the Arab-Israeli conflict always seems to take a high-profile role in the second half of the second and final term of the US president.
It happened with Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Plan in the 1980s, which produced nothing and was followed by the first intifada in 1987. Then it happened again in the late '90s, in the second term of Bill Clinton. That also produced no tangible result and instead we got the second intifada in 2000.
Now it is George W. Bush's turn. So everyone is braced in case things don't work out.
Everyone seems to think that we are approaching another window of opportunity. King Abdullah II of Jordan has said publicly that the next six months are crucial for Middle East peace. Palestinian leaders are trying to patch up an acceptable government, with even Syria now playing a positive role in bringing Hamas and Fatah leaders closer to each other and to the acceptable international requirements.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been to the region, spent a little more time than usual and ensured that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet with her in a month's time.
The Quartet has met to fine-tune the road map, which has been dusted off and is being presented again as the only game in town.
For their part, the Israelis are also preparing themselves for the possibility of peace-making. Labor leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz has spoken about a three-phased plan. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has her own plan, and Olmert may also have a plan.
ALL THESE plans talk of a Palestinian state now that Bush has made this term an acceptable one, but that is as far as it goes. A tour of the West Bank will reveal the elaborate plans of bridges, tunnels and alternative roads that aim at ensuring that the present "apartheid" road system [Palestinian traffic is barred from a number of roads as a security measure to protect Jewish settlers] becomes permanent.
There is talk of a state with temporary boundaries (which Palestinians have rejected) and now we are told that there are Israelis pushing a plan for some type of trusteeship which would most likely be confined to the Palestinian-populated areas and not the settlements.
For sure, the current apparently serious US interest is not just because Bush is not running in 2008. There is the problem of Iraq as well as the problems of Iran and some of its Arab supporters. The Bush administration, which is clearly planning to be out (or on its way out) of Iraq by 2008, is hoping to limit its loss to Iraq and therefore wants to create a buffer zone of like-minded countries. Rice calls countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia part of the moderate axis.
This axis is also supposed to include Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon and the PA's Abbas, although the latter insists that he wants to stay out of any axis.
For this so-called moderate axis to work, it is not enough for the Americans to expect that hardware will do the trick. Sure the US will fund the military of these countries, but Washington knows very well that what is important is "soft power," the hearts and minds of Arab peoples in these countries.
IN TALKING about soft power the Bush administration understands exactly what is needed. Every Arab and European leader (including Tony Blair) has been saying it ad nauseam: Deal with the problems of Palestine so as to reduce the poison in the air. Lately, the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan report also gave strong support to the need to deal with the issue of Palestine as part of a package deal aimed at allowing the Americans what they call an honorable exit from Iraq.
Therefore the Bush-Cheney-Rice team know what needs to be done. The question is how much political capital it is willing to spend. Until now only the political capital of a US president has succeeded in getting the parties (especially the Israelis) to react.
George W. Bush and his team has given all the right signals, but it is not yet clear how far they will go in pursuing their goals and those of the world community in dealing with the issue of Palestine.
Bush's public call for an independent, viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity was an important declaration. It is not enough to support this call simply with the appearance of movement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Every bit of US diplomacy, and more, is needed to be able to try and translate this call into reality.
Failure to produce tangible results is scary. When Reagan failed, Palestinian revolted in an unarmed intifada. When Clinton failed, the second intifada was armed and deadly on both sides.
If George Bush and his administration fail this time it is hard to imagine what the consequences will be.