Shifting politics bring Arabs and Israelis closer

The possibility that Israel and Saudi Arabia may sit at the negotiating table together distinguishes this new chapter in peacemaking efforts from the failures of the past.

It's a given that any US secretary of State will come to the Middle East, shake the hands of Israeli and Arab leaders, and try to prod them toward peace.

But other givens that have long defined the conflict are beginning to shift, helping Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – who finished a week-long trip to the region on Thursday – move forward in a new push by the Bush administration to bring its Middle East allies to the negotiating table.

In particular, the possibility of inviting Israel and Saudi Arabia to the table together is one of the things that most distinguishes this new chapter in peacemaking efforts from those of the past.

Israel has long eschewed the role of multilateral peace talks that involved putting more than one Arab country at the table, and preferring instead to work one-on-one in bilateral talks. And Saudi Arabia, as a regional heavyweight that stands at the heart of the Muslim world, had repeatedly said that it would not seek peace with Israel until after it reached a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.

Now, however, against the backdrop of a Middle East political landscape that looks much different from the way it did seven years ago, the last time full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were held, the possibility of involving multiple Arab states in the process is something that Israel appears increasingly keen to accept.

"Israel is probably more inclined to think now that some of the Arab states would be more cooperative than they had in the past, and maybe some of those countries are a little fed up with the Palestinians in comparison [to] the past," says Mark Heller, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, referring to Saudi, Egyptian, and other initiatives to broker peace between Hamas and Fatah.

Rice will be leaving the region with an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to work on reaching a new "declaration of principles" ahead of an international peace conference that the US will sponsor this fall. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert are due to meet next week. Israeli officials have spoken of formulating with Abbas "agreed principles" for establishing a Palestinian state.

A potential key player in the fall peace conference will be Saudi Arabia, which fathered a potentially groundbreaking peace initiative that has since been adopted by the Arab League.

"If the Saudis come to this conference, it gives it more of a regional feel, and that's logical. When you talk about the Middle East, you can no longer just talk about Israelis and Palestinians in conflict," says Zehavit Ben Hillel, the deputy spokesperson of Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We're talking about moderates and extremists."

The Saudi initiative offers peace with all the countries of the Arab League if Israel reaches an accord for the creation of a Palestinian state. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Olmert urged Rice to include Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain, and other Gulf states in the conference, said his advisers.

The desire to make more space at the table is an about-face from the approach Israel used to take. When the US brought parties from around the Middle East to an impossibly long table in the first multilateral peace talks in Madrid in 1991, Israel's government went reluctantly and without plans to make progress, former premier Yitzhak Shamir later acknowledged, because of Israel's concerns of being "ganged up on" in international forums. Real peace agreements could only be worked out one-on-one, the Israeli conventional wisdom held, and not while facing a whole table full of foes.

And during the most recent round of final status negotiations, which broke down in the summer of 2000, Israeli negotiators felt that the role of other Arab states involved – namely Egypt – was encouraging Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to take a hard-line position and be unwilling to compromise, says Mr. Heller.

Much has happened since then. The 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, the ascendancy of Hamas and Iran's drive to join the nuclear club have all had an impact on how Israel views Western-friendly Arab states, and vice versa.

"Now, there's a convergence of interests of Israel and some Arab states, in comparison to 2000 or 1991. You've got Iran looming in the background and that brings interest together. There's a feeling here that if you bring more Arab countries around and they sit in and shake hands, there might be a payoff for Israeli leadership. I'm not sure if Arab states see this the same way."

Indeed, there is concern in the Arab world that Israel is trying to put the proverbial cart before the horse, by working to gain assurances from the Saudis before taking the plunge toward a two-state solution.

"And nowadays, Israel accepts the idea of negotiating peace with all Arabs, but I think they want the recognition and normalization without paying for it," says Tariq Masarweh, a political commentator in Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994.

Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, worries that Israel is trying to leapfrog to the next step by having the Saudis join the summit in the fall without first accepting what's in the initiative as it stands. For example, Israel does not want to agree to the initiative's call to withdraw from territories it occupied in 1967.

"I think the Israeli position right now is a maneuver to bypass the Arab Initiative," says Reiter, because Olmert says Israel will not enter into talks with preconditions.

"Olmert is generally looking to start negotiations for a final agreement. But if he tries to bring in the Saudis regardless of their text of the Arab Peace initiative, I'm not sure it will be fruitful."

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