"And what will happen if the plan that [U.S. President George] Bush announces does not satisfy the Arabs? What will they do - stage a coup and seize the White House? Or if the plan does not call for a Palestinian state? Will the Arabs abduct [U.S. National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and send Bush one finger after another until he gives them a Palestinian state?

"We have to acknowledge the fact that we do not have the power to influence the White House into doing what it doesn't want to do, and I would not attribute this only to the clout that Israel has with the administration. It goes deeper than that: the administration has not been persuaded that there is a connection between international terrorism and the national conflict. The administration's conclusion is therefore that to invest a supreme effort in making peace in the Middle East is unprofitable in terms of the cardinal effort to contain international terrorism."

This original analysis was put forward by a Jordanian official, who was openly sarcastic about the "peace peddling" being conducted by some Arab leaders. "[Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak arrives with an idea for a small, provisional Palestinian state, [Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah presents an initiative that has no future, no one bothers to update Jordan, Syria uses its veto, and in the meantime Israel can go on with its occupation of the territories," the Jordanian official added.

As he sees the situation, a basic contradiction has emerged in Arab policy in the region: without the U.S. it is impossible to kick-start the peace process, yet at the same time, without the Arabs holding out a genuine prospect for progress, the United States will not lift a finger. It's an unbeatable formula for impasse.

According to this conception, the entire Middle East is subject to a perfect system of checks and balances that make it impossible for the process - any process - to go forward. A case in point is the idea of reform in the Palestinian Authority, which has been thrown into the conceptual arena. Without reform, there will be no negotiations. Thus the reform of the PA has been linked to the cease-fire. After all, neither of those conditions will be realized in full until the political future is presented under the full glare of the spotlights, but that "political horizon" will not be put forward by Israel or by the U.S. administration if it is not preceded by reform and/or a cease-fire. The result: impasse.

Another example is the currently prevailing assumption that the U.S. will attack Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not approve the entry of international inspectors into the country. But if American does strike at Iraq, no inspectors will come anyway. So what's more important: to attack Iraq or to get Saddam's consent to inspectors? There is no Arab-American agreement on this subject, so there is no movement on the part of the White House, either.

A third example: if Iran does not effect a change in its policy toward the U.S., it cannot expect a more sympathetic stance from Washington. Tehran, though, says that if the U.S. does not revise its policy toward Iran, the Iranians will go on rejecting America's attempts at a rapprochement. In the meantime, each side has its "hand proffered for peace" stuck deep in its pocket, while waiting for something to happen that will unbalance the checks and balances.

The current state of balance - in which the intifada has ceased to pose a threat to the Arab states, the deadly terrorist attacks have become part of the ongoing agenda in Israel, the Iraqi threat has been postponed until Judgment Day, and the Iranians' Shihab ballistic missile is dwarfed by the "dirty bomb" - can continue into the far future, as it creates a convenient illusion that there is no threat, or at least that the threat can be managed. A managed threat is a comfortable situation for a superpower that is not interested in utilizing its global deterrent power in the form of military or diplomatic pressure to resolve a crisis. A managed threat, as distinct from a crisis, does not erode the superpower's prestige. The U.S. administration is not the only one to profit from this quiet stalemate. The moderate Arab states fulfilled all their commitments to the Palestinians. Their leaders made the pilgrimage to Washington and put forward proposals, and from their point of view have moved the ball into the Israeli-American court. Iraq is enjoying the reduced pressure, as is Iran. As for Israel and the Palestinians - they are well locked into the managed threat while awaiting the eruption of a crisis of some sort. Well, they can wait. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is again starting to bore Washington. It's now only a threat, you know.