So what comes after the modest but real success of the Annapolis peace conference? Where will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice take the process she has set in motion?
The view at the State Department -- beyond relief that the occasionally chaotic logistics of the conference worked out -- is that a number of diplomatic opportunities are opening up. The pieces of the Middle East puzzle are starting to move, creating room for openings involving not just the Palestinians but also Syria, Lebanon and perhaps eventually Iran.
Rice began talking in January about a "realignment" in the Middle East that would bring together moderate Sunni Arab states to resist Iranian-backed radicalism. From the beginning, that approach included restarting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that had languished because of U.S. inattention. For Rice, Tuesday's meeting in Annapolis -- with George Bush, Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert looking out at smiling Arab diplomats -- was a group snapshot of this realignment.
Annapolis was a setback for Iran. That country's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried hard to dissuade Syria from attending; his efforts, I am told, included calling his ally, President Bashar al-Assad. He failed, but if the Annapolis process should languish, Iran and its proxies could quickly regain the upper hand. That's the danger of what Rice has set in motion. Now she has to make it work.
The Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations will start Dec. 12 with the basics, such as forming the committees that will discuss the agenda. Rice doesn't want these preliminaries to drag on for months. She hopes substantive negotiations on a peace treaty will begin by early January.
A separate "trilateral committee" should also begin meeting in December to discuss security issues surrounding the "road map," with a U.S. representative joining the Israelis and Palestinians as arbiter. The United States will name a day-to-day facilitator, perhaps a retired military officer, to develop metrics so the two sides can measure progress on security at regular weekly or biweekly meetings.
After dragging its feet on security assistance for the Palestinians the past two years, the United States has finally recognized that this is a crucial variable. To beef up the American effort, Rice on Wednesday named retired Marine Gen. James Jones as her "special envoy for Middle East security." Jones is an adept mediator and has many friends in Congress and in Europe, where he was a popular NATO commander.
Jones will work with Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to understand how to fill the potential security gap created by a Palestinian state that, by design, will be weak militarily. What defense arrangements should be made for the Jordan Valley with the Jordanians, who have a strong army and close relations with Israel? What steps can be taken now to prevent the West Bank from becoming a launching pad for missiles, as Gaza has become? How can the modest training effort for Palestinian security forces in Jordan be expanded quickly, perhaps with European money? These are some of the issues on Jones's agenda.
A happy Annapolis surprise was the positive speech by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, which American officials viewed as a break in the ice of U.S.-Syrian relations. Before publicly embracing a Syrian-Israeli track, Rice wants to see Syrian cooperation in electing a new president in Lebanon. But U.S. officials credit Syria for reducing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, and they are planning regular security meetings with the Syrians.
Lebanon is one example of how the Middle East logjam is beginning to break. After several months of deadlocked negotiations over a new president, the pro-American parties holding a slender majority in the Lebanese parliament announced last week that they will back the Lebanese army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman. America's key Lebanese allies, Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, are both said to be comfortable with Suleiman as a compromise candidate. The Lebanese general has managed the trick of being friendly with Damascus, which originally backed his appointment, and also friendly with Washington. This compromise is not a perfect solution, and it leaves unresolved the future of Lebanon's volatile Shiite militia Hezbollah. But it's certainly preferable to a return to civil war.
The big strategic challenge in the Middle East remains Iran. Rice believes that in dealing with such an adversary, it's important to have some leverage. The Annapolis conference and recent American successes in Iraq have given the United States and its "realignment" allies a bit more of that strategic heft. The key now is deciding how to use the new leverage in a timely way, before it's lost. Tehran isn't yet on Rice's travel itinerary. But someday soon it should be.