Is now the time to talk peace in the Mideast?

The Quartet of powers seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ends a hiatus in peacemaking efforts with a meeting in Washington on Friday. But it comes at what would seem to be a particularly unpromising moment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will host the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations for talks on how to get negotiations toward a final settlement moving again – even as rival Palestinian factions battle each other in Gaza, and Israel founders under a weak and scandal-torn government.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – who is locked in battle with a government run by the militant Hamas organization – would seem to be in the kind of position needed to make hard choices and painful compromises.

And even before the Quartet meets, cracks are appearing in its position, with Russia calling for a lifting of the freeze on international aid to the Palestinian government. The freeze was a response to Hamas's election victory last year and was designed to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel, give up violence, and accept past peace-process accords.

Yet Secretary Rice and other Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, insist this is a moment of opportunity. Rice, just back from a Middle East trip, speaks of a "change of environment" and "realignment" that "clarifies" the way forward, separating the advocates for peace from the forces for turmoil.

In particular, she and other US officials speak of a new willingness of Sunni Arab regimes – increasingly alarmed by Shiite Iran's growing clout in the region – to work together and with Israel to push the peace process forward.

But many experts in the region, while applauding any renewed effort to resolve the conflict, don't see the opening some leaders are talking about, and they worry that the timing is based more on the tangential needs of players such as the Bush administration.

"Nothing has changed over recent weeks or months to suggest any hopes for a major breakthrough, so I can't see that [the calling of the Quartet meeting] has anything to do with improved prospects," says Bernard Reich, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington. "But the Palestinian issue remains connected to everything else in the region, so we have no option but to try to do something about it."

Others see the current US push for progress as responding more to political motivations than to encouraging facts on the ground.

"The motivation for [moving] now is that this administration is in its last two years, and the question is, What has it accomplished for US foreign policy?" says Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York. "This is particularly important for Condoleezza Rice, who wants to have a future in US foreign policy and politics."

Indeed, for most of its first term and into the second, the Bush administration said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not "ripe" for dedicated US diplomacy. President Bush did call for a Palestinian state "living side by side in peace" with Israel in 2002, but horizons for achieving that goal have been pushed off into the distance.

Now the United States is not just playing catch-up as it revives the peace process, analysts say, but is acting from a more difficult position.

"If they had really focused on this back in 2002 and moved with some vigor and balance on the Palestinian situation, there would have been a better chance for progress," says Michael Hudson, an expert in US regional diplomacy at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

"It's a pretty terrible moment for any progress," he says, noting the difficult straits the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are in, and the perceived weakness of the US. "Bush is not seen to be in a position to press ahead for something to get done, and the Democrats also tend to be uncritically pro-Israel on this issue."

Beyond that, Mr. Hudson says the US is now encumbered by a much worse image in the region. "The US is seen so broadly as an expansionist colonial power as the result of Iraq that its good offices are not to be trusted," he says.

The controversy over Israel's use of US-supplied cluster bombs in last summer's war with Hizbullah in Lebanon is one current example of the kinds of issues that continue to tarnish the US standing in the region, analysts say. Such issues also complicate the domestic political environments for the region's Sunni Arab regimes that might be open to greater cooperation with the US and Israel, they add.

The emergence of such a "coalition" will depend on US actions, says Mr. Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum. "We need to be careful to make a distinction between potential coalitions and actual," he says. "Whether it happens depends on US behavior."

For example, he says Sunni Arab regimes are watching not just for US action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for assurances that the US will not forsake Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

Even more skeptical, Mr. Reich of George Washington University says the scenario of Sunni Arabs teaming up with Israel over Iran may be what Rice considers "logical," but not what Sunni regimes are ready for. "The Saudis, for one," he says, "aren't just going to set up the alliance implied in this 'realignment.' "

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