The Middle East's middle ground

The players at the Annapolis conference at least represent an antiradical coalition. Iran must take note.

An air of necessity, and thus possibility, lies over the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md. If Ben Franklin were there, as he was in Philadelphia to help 13 states draft a US Constitution, he might give the same advice to participants: We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Despite the pessimism heading into Tuesday's one-day confab of nearly 50 countries, it's a welcome step forward. The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians has stagnated, as it has between Israel and Syria and between Palestinian factions. Israeli politicians, too, are hardly unified on what kind of compromises to make.

Merely keeping the various antagonists talking is the first art of diplomacy. For that alone, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deserves credit for her months of arm-twisting preparation. The best outcome would be follow-up actions as well as talks.

Without any movement toward a Palestinian state or the makings of an Israeli-Syrian deal, the Islamic radicals in the region – driven by muscle-flexing Iran, its proxy Hizbullah militants in Lebanon, and Al Qaeda-inspired groups – will remain on the ascendency. Their apparent eagerness to sabotage the talks reveals the dangers that progress poses for them.

Israel especially has the most to lose without ending its occupation of most of the West Bank. The rapid rise of the Palestinian population will soon leave Israeli Jews a minority in this currently hybrid state. Israeli Jews who see modern Israel more as reclaimed historic territory than a Jewish state must not sabotage these talks by politically threatening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

It is Mr. Olmert's rapport with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that forms the peace pillar for this conference. (Their new-found trust was helped along by the fact that Olmert's wife is an artist whose work depicts the possibilities of peace.) Their sincerity about peace, as well as the split-off of the Gaza Strip under the now-unpopular Palestinian radical group Hamas, provide some hope of an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Another pillar is the recent willingness of President Bush to use his remaining 14 months in office to make good on his promise to create a Palestinian state. That promise, made after Sept. 11 and so essential to his dream of a terror-free Middle East, has wrung hollow until now.

Mr. Bush's leadership is needed to buck up the weak Palestinian leader by providing tangible benefits for West Bank Palestinians. He must also buck up Olmert against those Israelis (and Americans) who want to retain most Jewish settlements. The fact that Saudi Arabia agreed to sit down with Israel at this meeting may hint that Bush is ready to act on that point.

Most of the players at Annapolis represent the moderate middle within their respective camps and coalitions. Together, they can more easily fend off antipeace forces, such as Iran. Even if this meeting fails to push forward a Palestinian state, it will at least put on display a wide coalition against Iran. The mere fact that Syria – a key Iranian ally – is attending, could isolate Tehran's clerics.

The region's middle ground can then become its high ground.

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