By the Scorched Earth Method

A mortar shell that landed in a Baghdad building where the United Nations secretary general was holding a press conference on Thursday was a reminder of what the Baghdad conference of two weeks ago had already managed to forget: the scorched earth that is spreading in the Middle East after four years of war in Iraq, the impotence in the war against Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the crumbling void that has been given the clean name "the peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians.

All of these were hopes of the war in Iraq. It is enough to consider this abridged catalogue of issues, which came up for discussion yesterday in the Egyptian city of Aswan, to conclude that after four years, that wonderful strategic conception - supposedly leading from the fall of Saddam Hussein to a domino process establishing a new Middle East in which peace and security prevail - was nothing more than a hallucination.

When American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the leaders of that part of the Middle East that has been awarded the title "moderate," the size of the gap between the existence of a huge, American military force and its ability to create real diplomatic solutions became even more obvious. The Arab foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were not able to offer Rice any magic recipe for solving the problem of Iraq, they did not know what to say about the nuclearization of Iran or how to solve the question of Lebanon, which is threatening to explode again and, above all, the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

After all, only about two months ago, they were lauding the Mecca agreement that gave rise to a unified Palestinian government, and now it is becoming clear to them that this achievement is bursting like a soap bubble. The economic boycott has not been lifted and the internecine war between Fatah and Hamas is threatening to erupt again. And not because there are no opportunities to mend things. Let us suppose that Israel agrees to negotiate with Syria, to discuss seriously a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for total peace and thus open to Damascus the option of reconnecting with the United States; let us suppose that Israel also agrees to let the Palestinian government receive full financial aid and develop the Palestinian state even before it sings Hatikva, and let us further suppose that that the United States agrees to conduct direct negotiations with Iran as it is. In short, let us suppose that the entire language changes: What disaster could happen here that is greater than the one that is already looming over our region?

Four years ago, when the burning ambition to topple Saddam Hussein and the vain promises of a world that is entirely good were at the heart of the discourse, it was impossible to put a proposal like this on the table but now, with human skeletons and vehicles strewn everywhere, it is also possible to examine an alternative. Five years have gone by since that Arab summit conference, which was held at about the same time United States President George W. Bush coined the term "broader Middle East," but nothing has changed in the Israeli and American perception of the region.

Both countries are carrying around prepared files of rules of behavior with which the countries of the region must comply before any alternative is examined: the Quartet's conditions for the Palestinian government, which can no longer be called a Hamas government, preconditions for dialogue with Syria and conditions for Iran and Iraq, to the point that it seems as though the very fact of the presenting of conditions is a demonstration of power, and there is no importance to the question of whether they will be fulfilled. The result is that these two powers are discussing these conditions with each other and watching closely so that one of them won't betray the other - that Israel, heaven forbid, will not embark on negotiations with Syria, lest the status of the United States vis-a-vis Damascus and Tehran be harmed, and that the United States, heaven forbid, will not start talking with the Palestinian government.

All of this, of course, will not deter the learned observers from examining in a few days whether the Arab League, which is meeting this week in Riyadh, will add or subtract a syllable or two from its formulations. Will the Arab initiative become softer or stiffer, will Israel have to invent another excuse for keeping things locked, or will the Arab league itself provide this excuse?