It took a trip to the region for me to finally understand that this peace process is unlike any other. It's not really about Israel and the Palestinians; it's about Iran. Rice is constructing a coalition of the losing. There is a feeling among Arab and Israeli leaders that an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance is on the march. The nations that resist that alliance are in retreat. The peace process is an occasion to gather the "moderate" states and to construct what Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center calls an anti-Iran counter-alliance.
It's slightly unfortunate that the peace process itself is hollow. It's like having a wedding without a couple because you want to get the guests together for some other purpose. But that void can be filled in later. The main point is to organize the anti-Iranians around some vehicle and then reshape the strategic correlation of forces in the region.
Iran has done what decades of peace proposals have not done brought Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinians and the U.S. together. You can go to Jerusalem or to some Arab capitals and the diagnosis of the situation is the same: Iran is gaining hegemonic strength over the region and is spreading tentacles of instability all around.
The Syrians, who have broken with the Sunni nations and attached themselves to Iran, are feeling stronger by the day. At least one-third of Iraq is under Iranian influence. Hezbollah is better armed and more confident now than it was before its war against Israel. Hamas is being drawn closer inside the Iranian orbit and is more likely to take over the West Bank than lose its own base in Gaza.
In short, Iran is taking advantage of the region's three civil wars and could have its proxy armies on Israel's northern, western and southern borders.
Arab opinion, even in Sunni nations, is sympathetic to Iran. Egypt, which should serve as a counterbalance to Iran, is sclerotic and largely absent from the scene.
It's no wonder Rice has acted so forcefully to forge the "moderate" coalition. She seems to sense what leaders in the region say privately: It's not so much that they have high hopes of peace; it's that they are terrified they will fail. If they cannot restart the peace process and build an anti-Iran alliance upon it, then the days of the moderates could be numbered. That's why Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, pinned what's left of his career to this Annapolis process at a speech before the Saban Forum Sunday night, and why other leaders are so fervent behind the scenes.
There are a few problems to overcome. The Saudis, as is their nature, are trying to play both sides, making supportive noises about the anti-Iran project without doing much to actually help.
Some "moderate" Arab autocrats have become soul brothers with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharaff, and are lobbying America to betray its principles and not condemn him.
Finally, there is the peace process itself. There is remarkably little substance to it so far. Even people inside the Israeli and Palestinian governments are not sure what's actually going to be negotiated and what can realistically be achieved. Moreover, it's not clear that either of those governments can actually deliver anything. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, can sign deals, but it's not clear that he controls events a block from his headquarters. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert can do the same, but his cabinet is hostile and his people are cynically disengaged.
The whole thing could backfire and leave the anti-Iranian cause in worse shape than ever. If that happens, then life will get really ugly for Rice. America's friends in the region will try to flip Syria out of the Iranian orbit by offering it the re-conquest of Lebanon. Rice would then face a Faustian bargain continue the struggle against Iran, but at the cost of her own principles.
Still, despite these perils, Rice is surely right to be trying something. She's an admirer of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and is now present at the creation of a containment policy across the Middle East. The Bush administration is not about to bomb Iran (trust me). It's using diplomacy to build a coalition to balance it, and reverse an ugly tide.