In the Middle East, a fresh look at the land-for-peace deal

Will King Abdullah's bid to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gather momentum?

Two new high-level players have emerged in the tangled Middle East peace process.

One is Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

The other is the new secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon.

At last week's Arab League summit in Riyadh, King Abdullah sought and gained the renewed support of Arab leaders for an initiative he first proposed in 2002 to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The core of the proposal is full recognition of Israel by the Arabs in exchange for Israel's return of Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 war.

Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem would do much to create an environment for stability in the Arab world. Many believe it would also greatly diminish the reason for Arab extremists to continue their campaign of hatred and terror against the United States, which is seen as Israel's champion.

Saudi impetus

The move for traction in the maneuvering to bring Israelis and Palestinians together has gained new impetus recently in largely Sunni Saudi Arabia.

It has watched with concern as Iran, largely Shiite, is emerging as a challenger for influence and dominance in the region. The Saudis are alarmed by Iranian meddling in Syria and Iraq, concerned by Iran's backing of Islamist extremist and terrorist groups, and extremely worried at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Though Saudi Arabia and the US enjoy close ties, King Abdullah last week took the unusual tack of firing a broadside at the US for its "illegal foreign occupation" of Iraq.

Washington's reaction was remarkably mild, leading most observers to believe that the king was addressing his remarks to an Arab audience to gain credibility and leverage with it while offering a quiet "wink, wink" to the US that this is all part of Middle East politics.

Both the Saudis and other Arab leaders at the Arab League summit now believe the ball is in the Israeli court. While King Abdullah has sought with his criticism to put a little distance between himself and the US, he expects the US to work on Israel to get Israel to the negotiating table.

The onus is on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who along with Mr. Ban has been racketing around the region in what clearly is a new flurry of American activity to move the peace process forward. First reaction from Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not positive. He is balking particularly at a provision in the Abdullah proposal that would have Palestinian refugees return to their original homes in what is now Israel. Many Israelis fear that such an influx would dilute the Jewish character of Israel.

On the other hand, there are also many Israelis, tired of warring with the Arabs, who would welcome a peace accord which would guarantee Israel peace and security. While Mr. Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, probably had the gravitas to carry Israeli opinion with him in difficult negotiations that might require Israeli concessions, Olmert is in a much weaker political position.

However, Olmert did say there were some "positive elements" in the Abdullah proposal. And at a Sunday press conference in Jerusalem with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he invited Arab leaders to join him in a regional peace meeting in Jerusalem.

Ban Ki Moon's efforts

Meanwhile, Ban, who emerged from relative obscurity as a South Korean diplomat to head the UN, has been a veritable dervish of diplomacy in the Middle East.

In Iraq, he promised Iraqi and American officials that the UN, which had withdrawn from Iraq in 2003 after being targeted by insurgents, would return in greater strength. Although nobody is talking about the insertion of lightly armed peacekeepers, once some semblance of stability returns there could be an enormous role for the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq.

At the Arab League summit, Ban promoted the Abdullah peace proposal and urged the Israelis to "take a fresh look at it."

On the sidelines, he brokered a deal for a UN-African Union force in Darfur and sought reduction of tension in Somalia.

In Lebanon, he urged a crackdown on arms being smuggled in from Syria for Hizbullah.

In Israel, he met with the families of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah.

On Iran, he rued the Tehran regime forging ahead with its nuclear program "heedless of regional and international concerns."

Peace may not be at hand, but diplomacy is vigorous.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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