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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the Middle East will not bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is doubtful whether it will advance a Palestinian state in the territories.

Rice cannot do much, beyond making optimistic statements and publicly supporting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice knows that her hosts in Jerusalem and Ramallah are each at an unprecedentedly low political point. Abbas is locked in a battle for survival with Hamas, and Olmert's support continues to dwindle. In this situation, there is no partner for a political process, neither in Jerusalem nor in Ramallah. The Bush administration has also lost the American public's support and is under increasing attacks at home over the failures in Iraq.

Then why did Rice bother to come at all?

Was she just trying to get away from the freezing weather and political criticism in Washington? Rice's main objective is to strengthen America's allies in the Middle East, in the face of Iran's growing power. The first rule in regional diplomacy says that to enlist the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians on your side, you must pay lip service to the Palestinian problem.

It's easier for the pro-American Arab leaders to be photographed with Rice after she recites slogans of "a two-state solution" and pops into Ramallah to visit Abbas. The struggle in Iran is becoming increasingly important in terms of American diplomacy in the Middle East the more Iraq appears to be a lost cause.

The heads of the U.S.'s intelligence community heads presented last Thursday the annual intelligence evaluation to the Senate, describing the Iranian threat in grim terms. Outgoing director of national intelligence John Negroponte said Iran's influence in the region goes beyond the danger of its nuclear program. He said the Taliban and Saddam's decline, the rise in oil revenues, Hamas' election victory and what appears to be Hezbollahs' success in fighting Israel, enhance Iran's shadow over the region. This is worrying America's Arab allies, who are afraid of the growing tension between the Shi'ites and the Sunni Muslims.

Lieutenant General Michael Maples, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Hezbollah has renewed its arsenals since the war, with help from Syria and Iran and said the organization's leadership remained intact.

Washington and Tehran are now busy forming regional alliances - Israel, Abbas and the moderate Arab regimes on the one hand; Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas on the other hand.

Olmert agrees. He believes Israel's main object at present is strengthening the moderate Palestinian forces by removing roadblocks and covertly helping Abbas. Olmert does not expect public embraces with the Saudis. He prefers discrete cooperation with moderate Arab states. These are the issues he is likely to discuss with Rice tomorrow.