Washington -- Israel and Syria, the two main Middle East antagonists following the destruction of Iraq's military might and the discrediting of the Palestine Liberation Organization, moved further away from the peace table this week, pushing prospects for an Arab-Israeli settlement almost out of sight.
As a treaty went into effect giving Syria wide influence over Lebanese affairs, Israel began blasting away at positions in zTC southern Lebanon, some held by radical Palestinian groups backed by Syrian President Hafez el Assad.
Israel's evident aim was to prevent a threatening buildup of hostile forces near its security zone in southern Lebanon as the ++ Lebanese government sought to push armed militias southward.
The United States, still holding out hope of starting a peace process, adopted a passive role, lamenting the region's cycle of violence but refraining from criticism even as Israel used U.S.-supplied planes for the raids.
But prospects for a U.S.-brokered Middle East peace conference seemed dimmer than ever, as neither side was showing any sign of compromise. Also dimmer were hopes by the Bush administration that Syria would provide the key to getting talks started.
President Bush sent letters to President Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir last week proposing a formula for resolving the two procedural disputes standing in the way of a conference intended to lead to direct Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The issues were whether the United Nations would have a role and whether the conference could reconvene after the initial session. The middle ground adopted by President Bush called for a token U.N. role and for a requirement that all parties agree the conference could be reconvened.
While Syria remained silent, Israel put out word that even these terms were unacceptable. It opposes any U.N. role and wants only a one-time, ceremonial peace conference.
Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its subtle overtures to Jordan's King Hussein and the Palestinians, saying that sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip was negotiable.
By week's end, it looked as though the administration's effort was doomed to fail, with the atmosphere sufficiently poisoned as to make even a scaled back Israeli-Palestinian peace conference unlikely.
To show how far events had strayed from the administration's initial aims, one need only look at senior officials' statements at the end of the Gulf war.
Then, the disputed Golan Heights -- claimed by Syria, occupied by Israel -- were considered a potentially fruitful target for negotiations. Syria was said to have a genuine desire for reconciliation with Israel.
The failure to get agreement on a conference has bolstered the view of some analysts that the approach by President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker was overly ambitious and misguided.
Encouraged by new cooperation from Syria during the Persian Gulf war, the administration pressed for a two-track peace process of talks between Israel and Arab states and between Israel and Palestinians.
It was thought that only by assembling as wide a group of Arabs as possible would individual states and the Palestinians have the necessary "cover" to talk peace with Israel.
The prospect of direct talks with Arab states was seen as an inducement to Israel to enter talks with Palestinians.
But the refusal by the wealthy Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to participate in a serious way left Syria in a vital role, able to manipulate terms of the conference while exerting pressure on the much weaker Jordan not to go it alone.
Peter W. Rodman, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute who served on the National Security Council staffs of the Reagan and Bush administrations, says the whole idea of an international conference was a mistake.
"The result was to make Syria the pivotal factor in the Middle East," able to block progress on the Palestinian front while pressing for return of the Golan Heights.
Any hope that the Soviets, as co-sponsors, could influence Syria was wishful thinking, he said. And the presence of Soviets and Europeans at a conference will dilute freedom of action for the United States, he said.
"It's not an accident that the U.S. government stayed clear of this for 18 years."
But in the process, an opportunity was lost, Mr. Rodman says, to take advantage of the weakened position of the PLO and launch talks between Israel and Palestinians.
A joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation willing to talk with Israel offered a way "to get something sensible out of Israel. It puts them on the spot."
A breakthrough on the Palestinian front would give the United States greater leverage over Syria while encouraging the Gulf states to make a gesture toward Israel. A conference then would give the U.S. more control, he said.
As of now, Mr. Rodman sees Jordan as too weak to buck Syria, the Saudis unwilling to move without progress on the Palestinian front and increasing pressure within the U.N. Security Council to take matters into its own hands, pushing the United States once again into the position of being Israel's sole defender.
Mark Matthews is The Sun's diplomatic correspondent