A Wake-up Call for Washington

A permanent temporary situation is beginning to take root in the region: a terrorist attack here and there, the reconquest of the territories and, above all, policy idleness.

A permanent temporary situation is beginning to take root in the region: a terrorist attack here and there, the reconquest of the territories and, above all, policy idleness. Even the spasm of activity that seized the U.S. administration for a moment has come to a halt, leaving behind only a faded sign saying, "Get ready for an international conference."

American diplomats explain that the administration did all it could, held meetings with most of the relevant Arab leaders (in practice, only with King Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and brought about a bit of quiet. Washington is now busy with other matters.

A war is threatening to erupt between Pakistan and India. And President George W. Bush has a domestic problem on his hands concerning the warnings that preceded September 11. According to reports from Arab sources, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt relayed fairly detailed information about the possibility of a terrorist attack being perpetrated by means of planes, and even the code name of the operation was made known to representatives of the central intelligence agency in those countries. In any event, because there has been a "decline in the level of violence" between Israel and the Palestinians, an administration that can generally handle only one subject a day has nothing to contribute to a solution of the conflict at this time.

At the same time, however, the Arab states are today ready, perhaps more than at any time in the past, to foment some sort of radical transformation in the situation. For example, King Abdullah is busy formulating detailed ideas for an agreed Arab position (together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but not with Syria, which for the moment is unwilling to take part in an international conference) on the type of temptation that the Arab states can dangle in front of Israel. The Jordanian monarch believes in a plan that includes two cardinal elements: Arab guarantees for Israel's security and a comprehensive solution of the conflict in place of a phased plan.

The Saudi crown prince and the president of Egypt are not in complete agreement with this position, at least with regard to the possible political solution. The view being taken by Cairo at this time is that as long as Ariel Sharon is prime minister of Israel and as long as the U.S. administration continues to be in a torpor, it will be possible to achieve only interim agreements. "There is no foundation in Israel today on which it is possible to build a political plan," says an Egyptian governmental source. "Therefore, there is no direction in which to push Yasser Arafat, even if we assume that Arab leaders are capable of making him embark on a particular course of action."

Last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher made it clear that the whole idea of an international conference is a joke as long as Israel thinks it can dictate who will take part in it and what the agenda will be. "The conditions for holding a conference are Israel's backtracking to the positions it put forward before the intifada, and that all the Arab sides take part." Nevertheless, if all the countries are invited to a conference and Syria decides not to attend, Damascus's decision will probably not prevent Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia from sending delegations.

Washington has not issued any invitations to an international conference. The administration is not even making enthusiastic noises or bothering to create an atmosphere of political activity ahead of a conference, as though expecting that something will happen by itself. The standard statements issued by President Bush sound increasingly like an answering machine. No one is taking the idea of a conference seriously: will if be based on the parameters laid down by Sharon (in which case there is no chance that it will convene), or do the Americans have a vision of their own in this regard?

True, it is hard to blame the administration - or to blame only the administration - for inaction when Israel has not yet put forward any sort of practical plan. But when the Arab states are abandoning their traditional stance of observers, to the point where they succeeded within a short time in creating an atmosphere of opposition to the suicide attacks, someone in the administration would do well to open more than a drowsy eye and start pushing the initiative that Washington itself put forward.