WASHINGTON -- A crush of diplomats is converging for Tuesday's Middle East conference in Annapolis, most of them arriving from a region trembling with instability and growing extremism.
From Pakistan's political turbulence to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, from beheadings of police in Afghanistan to street assassinations in Gaza to airstrikes in Iraq, the level of confrontation and fear has never seemed higher in a region that has perfected the practice of suicide bombing and has already seen more than its share of conventional war.
Yet the dismaying context for the conference may be what drives it toward success. At the least, it has turned Annapolis into a high-stakes last gamble for the Bush administration.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly in recent weeks, "Failure is not an option."
Rice and President Bush, who will formally open the proceedings with a dinner in Washington tomorrow night, say they hope that the conference will launch intensive new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that might, at last, resolve the bloody Arab-Israeli confrontation that has fueled the region's terror and destruction for at least six decades.
Many of the region's key figures, including Osama bin Laden and, privately, many of its diplomats, say the failure of the United States to move decisively on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has meant seven years of stalemate and rising frustration.
"It's been seven lean years, and I don't think the neglect of the peace process has done anything to stabilize the region - quite the reverse," said Daniel Levy, who was an Israeli negotiator during the last substantial negotiations, in 2000.
None of those at the center of the region's violence - Iran, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza - were invited to Annapolis. They will miss the back-corridor discussions that may be the most productive venues of the conference.
At the conference itself, any significant movement toward a comprehensive peace settlement will require painful concessions by Palestinians and Israelis, senior diplomats say, decisions that in the past have simply been politically unacceptable.
The negotiations must center on an agreement over how to share Jerusalem, redraw Israeli-Palestinian borders, handle Palestinian demands for ancestral lands inside Israel, and establish security guarantees for both sides.
No agreement, or even formal negotiation, is expected in Annapolis. But some movement is essential because the alternative, many say, will be to plunge the region deeper into despair and lend credence to those who argue that there is no value in cooperating with the United States.
"If there is a massive failure at Annapolis - if the conference yields absolutely nothing except a few general words, then obviously there will be progressive radicalization in the region," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was White House national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter.
Rice told reporters last week that she has "certainly given a lot of thought to the consequences of inaction.
"You really only have two choices: You can act or not act," she said. "And I think at this point the dangers of inaction are much greater than the dangers of acting."
Few thoughtful analysts outside the administration have voiced expectations of success at Annapolis.
"There are no optimists in the Middle East," said Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group last year. He described the situation in the region as "explosive, almost ready to spin out of control."
Hamilton, along with Brzezinski and six other foreign policy heavyweights, wrote to Bush and Rice last month warning that failure at Annapolis "risks devastating consequences" in the Middle East because it would undercut moderates.
At the center of much of the region's trouble is Iran, which Rice termed "the greatest threat to U.S. security interests in the world" because of "Iranian terrorism, Iranian repression at home, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons technology," as she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.
Iran provided much of the weaponry used by Hezbollah in its war with Israel in the summer of 2006. Iran provides weapons and training to extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq, though the U.S. command said last week that Iranian arms shipments into Iraq have slowed. Iran also supports violent extremists in Gaza and elsewhere in the region.
The Bush administration also asserts that Iran is working to build nuclear weapons capability, and the U.S. is leading an international effort to pressure Iran to yield. U.S. officials are pressing to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran.
Yet Iran shows no sign of curtailing its nuclear activities, and other countries in the region, including Morocco, Egypt and most of the Gulf countries, have talked about following suit by starting their own nuclear programs.
Barely 10 weeks ago, Israeli jets destroyed what was believed to have been a nascent nuclear fuel facility in Syria. Despite the attack, which drew barely a murmur of protest from the Arab world, Syria may attend the Annapolis conference.
U.S. intelligence officials say that Iran is also strengthening its ability to dominate the Persian Gulf, bolstering its arsenal of ballistic missiles that could strike oil fields in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Iran is deploying anti-ship missile batteries in caves along the coast and flexing its fleet of quiet diesel submarines and surface-to-air missiles.
The United States is rushing to deploy a new generation of weapons, including mine-hunting and anti-submarine robot mini-subs, robot helicopters and robot attack boats essential to the kind of warfare many fear will erupt in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran.
The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault carrier with hundreds of combat Marines aboard, took part last week in mine-clearing exercises in the Gulf, operations that would precede an amphibious landing. The exercises were the sixth mine-clearing exercises this year, honing skills against what analysts say would be one of Iran's most deadly weapons, its arsenal of an estimated 5,000 sea mines.
"The enemy isn't interested in going toe-to-toe with us," said Navy Capt. Michael R. Good, a mine warfare expert, in a recent interview. "They are employing mines, small [attack] boats and diesel submarines."
He said the Navy wants the new mine-hunting and anti-submarine warfare technology "as soon as it's ready, so they can operate with it."
The multi-faceted threat from Iran, Bush has suggested, must be met with an anti-Iran coalition that he hopes to build at the Annapolis conference.
"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere, and that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime," Bush told an American Legion convention in August.
Close behind U.S. peacemaking efforts is the threat of force against Islamist extremists in what the administration has called a global war on terror.
Vice President Dick Cheney explained in a Nov. 2 speech in Dallas why peace conferences aren't enough.
"For us to operate on the assumption that we don't need to resort to force, that we don't need to use our military and intelligence capabilities to aggressively go after them, is to commit us to a strategy that simply will not work," he said. "I'm convinced, and a great many people are, that the only way to end this conflict on our terms is to destroy the enemy."
Accordingly, U.S. arms shipments into the region are accelerating, rising from $20.3 billion in the 1999-2002 period to $22.8 billion in 2003-2006, according to a Congressional Research Service study in September. The U.S arms shipments included tanks, self-propelled artillery, supersonic combat aircraft, anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles.
Overall, the Middle East imported $46 billion worth of arms in that period, the report said, not including transfers from regional states such as Iran.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration announced new security aid to Israel of $30 billion in the next 10 years and to Egypt of $13 billion, also in 10 years, with pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states of unspecified billions more.
With the region's turbulence and history of seemingly senseless violence, the possibility of a violent terrorist attack in the region during or immediately after Annapolis has been noted by many.
"There are too many people on both sides who can spoil this quickly," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Mideast specialist at the RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.
Asked about the possibility, even Rice acknowledged it could happen. "I don't doubt that there may be those who try to disrupt progress and peaceful resolution," she told reporters last week. "You see it every time there's some step forward."
Players and principles
There are four main parties to the Annapolis conference:
The United States, host, represented in Annapolis by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. President Bush hopes to accomplish a Mideast agreement before his term ends in January, 2009.
Israel, represented by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The Palestinians, represented by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and senior officials.
The Saudis, represented by Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister and nephew of King Abdullah
There are four main points for an eventual Mideast peace accord, and none is expected to be resolved at the Annapolis conference.
Defining the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state. The starting point is the June 4, 1967, armistice lines that were set after Israel won control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.
Status of Jerusalem. A Palestinian state would likely claim Jerusalem as its capital. Israel claims that now, but the United States keep its embassy in Tel Aviv. The basic formula would place Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian control and Jewish ones under Israeli control. Control of the walled Old City is a tougher issue.
Status of Palestinian claims to ancestral lands in Israel. More than 4.4 million Palestinian refugees are living in political limbo around the world. Israel opposes allowing Palestinians to return to Israel, a migration that would threaten the country's status as a majority Jewish nation, and it's generally accepted that few, if any, Palestinians will be allowed a "right of return" to what's now Israel.
Joint security arrangements. Israel has lived its entire life in a state of hot or cold war with its Arab neighbors, and Israelis do not want a well-armed Palestinian nation next door. A deal likely would support the creation of a limited Palestinian military with a restricted supply of defensive weapons.