Moderation rising in the Mideast

This week Israel debates Syria's offer of peace talks, while relations thaw between Egypt and Iran, Turkey and Syria.

The Middle East - a region long known for its rancorous politics - is trying something new: pragmatism and moderation.

Two caveats must come early in any discussion of regional improvements. The success of the US attempt to remake Iraq is by no means guaranteed. And the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moribund.

But in recent weeks, Libya has said it will abandon plans to pursue weapons of mass destruction. Iran has promised to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Syria has announced that it is again willing to talk peace with Israel.

Egypt and Iran are ending an era of mutual mistrust. So are Turkey and Syria. Saudi Arabia is allowing unprecedented internal debate.

"It's the end of radicalism," says Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in ter for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "You have a general sense of accommodation taking place in the region."

Dr. Said, who defines radicalism as the struggle for unobtainable goals, adds that "radical movements, whether pan-Islamic or pan-Arab, have come to the conclusion that continuation of confrontation with the status quo or the West in general is either futile or very costly."

In Washington, some of these events are interpreted as a victory for President Bush and his combative foreign policies. Others are not so certain of any direct correlation. "It's not as if Libya went from being a total pariah outlaw to poster boy of the new moderation simply because of the invasion of Iraq," says William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Quandt and other experts note that many of the regional developments are the fruit of internal factors and years of diplomacy that long predate the Iraq war.

"Certainly, the administration is interested in getting the message out that anything good that's happening is because we're firm, we're resolute ... so that everything falls neatly under the headline of 'We led, and the world follows,' which I don't buy," says Richard Murphy, a former diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Still, Mr. Murphy and other critics of Bush policy concede something is happening, though where it will lead, no one can say. "We may have started something [in Iraq] that will have a highly positive effect," he says, though he is reluctant to link the war and the appearance of a new moderation in the Middle East.

Murphy will go this far: "You can't invest the billions and the blood that we have in Iraq and not make a change. We have made a great change."

Perhaps it should be no surprise the administration is placing more emphasis on the follow-on benefits of the Iraq invasion. The key rationale for going to war in the first place - to eradicate Iraq's alleged development of weapons of mass destruction - seems increasingly groundless. Recent media reports indicate that the US is scaling back its efforts for find Iraqi biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, apparently because the search thus far has been futile.

If another goal of the war was to make the region safe for Israel - something administration critics have asserted since long before the invasion - that objective is well in hand. In its 55-year history, the Jewish state arguably has never been safer. "There is a vast improvement in the position of Israel," says Efraim Halevy, the former director of Israel's external intelligence agency, known as the Mossad. "The Iraq campaign has swept away what we used to call the Eastern Front."

Not only that: Syria has offered to resume peace negotiations. Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, Monday invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Israel for talks, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who holds more clout than Mr. Katsav, seems much less eager. Israeli officials have said Syria cannot now expect to resume talks where they broke off four years ago, which is what the Syrians propose.

But Syria is also engaging in a rapprochement with Turkey - the two nations both have Kurdish minorities that stand to be empowered by the emergence of a powerful Kurdish unit in a new, federal Iraq - so they may be rising above their disagreements over Israel. Syria has long criticized Turkey for its close relations with the Jewish state.

Iran's apparent willingness to accede to nuclear inspections is also a relief to Israel, as is Iran's renewed dialogue with Egypt, one of two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with the Israelis. Israel says its diplomats have secretly met with Libyan officials. At the same time, however, Iran's clerical rulers barred reformist candidates from next month's election.

The Bush administration was never willing to say aloud whether it had Israel's interests so prominently in mind, but some officials did suggest that the post-Iraq shakeup might also lead to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in particular.

"That doesn't yet seem to be at all in the cards," says Quandt, who suggests that progress "may require require waiting out" the tenures of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The US involvement in Iraq is hardly over, and analysts caution that a deterioration there might change the regional situation negatively as well. But for the time being - with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in US hands and the anti-American insurgency tapering off slightly - war skeptics are acknowledging that things are looking up.

"I hate to say it," says Said of the Al Ahram Center, " but at least from the results we are seeing the Iraqi thing was like a jolt in the region - it put a cap on radical politics."

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