Out of the blue, the US President George W. Bush on Monday called for a regional peace conference that would include high-level Arab officials and their counterparts from Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.

The proposed meeting, which is planned for later this year, signals a shift in US policy in the Middle East. Most analysts believe that the conference is designed to achieve some kind of foreign policy victory that would draw attention away from the war in Iraq.

This interpretation might well be true. Yet, it is not strong enough to justify a radical shift in the Bush administration's policy towards the Middle East.

Having resisted direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and having refused to press Israel to dismantle its colonies or to sit down at the table with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state, it is very difficult to believe that this shift in policy is designed only to draw attention away from the war in Iraq.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has shown genuine interest in the Middle East peace process only when it was in the process of planning a major military action in the region.

Peace talks has always been used as a tool to win support among Arab allies, reward them for supporting US policy and help them keep Arab public opinion at bay.

In 1991, the Madrid peace conference was designed as a reward for Arab leaders who stood by the US and supported "Desert Storm" to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Throughout the 1990s, the US used the peace process as a tool to win the backing of Arab capitals for the dual containment policy against both Iran and Iraq.

In June 2002, and while the US was planning for the invasion of Iraq, Bush announced the so-called "Road Map" for peace in the Middle East, wherein he committed himself to the two-state solution and promised that a viable Palestinian state would be established by 2005.

In fact, since the mid-1950s, the US has adopted a crisis management approach to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict instead of a crisis solution approach. It intervened only when the conflict threatened to spin out of control or seemed to affect key US interests in the region.

Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the Arab oil embargo, the US called for a regional peace conference in Geneva only after former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger realised that the US would no longer be able to detach the Palestinian question and its unlimited support for Israel from securing Arab oil supplies.

For the past two years, the hawks of the Bush administration, mainly Vice-President Dick Cheney, have been trying to win the support of the "moderate Arab states" for military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In his latest tour early this year, Cheney was reminded by Arab leaders of the importance to do something to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

His answer, it was reported, in all the regional capitals he visited, was that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the key problem in the region. It could help the US solve other pressing problem, the reply of Arab officials was.


It appears that this signal was well understood in Washington. The announcement by the United States that it is planning a regional peace conference to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at this odd time is an attempt to build good will among Arab allies that have pushed for America to re-engage in Middle East peace talks.

It looks also like giving away some sort of an early reward for the moderate Arab leaders, whose support for any military action against Iran would be a must.

Having said that, Iran must get really worried about Bush's plan to send his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates to the Middle East at the end of July to try to prod Arab leaders to show up for the regional meeting.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.