Cautious steps toward Middle East peace

Nobody thinks it will be easy. But carefully, and step by step, a new effort to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the peace table is under way. If that led to successful negotiations and an ultimate peace agreement, it would be of immense significance throughout the Arab world, removing the issue that is at the heart of much Arab animosity toward the United States.

After a period of virtual disengagement from the process, the US is again active, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East this week trying to rekindle support for a Saudi Arabian peace proposal first mooted in 2002. Discussion of this plan, and any modifications to it, at an Arab summit meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh this week will be significant. The plan envisages full recognition of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory it occupies.

As her present visit to the region began, Ms. Rice was quoted in The New York Times as hinting at the possibility of some new US proposals to bridge the divide between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush, in outlining his aspirations for democratic change in the Islamic world, has spoken of an ultimately independent Palestinian state alongside a secure state of Israel.

In many respects, this seems hardly a propitious moment for peace and freedom to blossom in the Middle East. In Palestinian Gaza, Hamas, an extremist terrorist-sanctioning movement, holds sway.

In Lebanon, another such organization, Hizbullah, struts confidently after humiliating the Israeli army last summer. Syria meddles in Lebanon. Iran meddles in Iraq, which is riven by Sunni-Shiite warfare that could spill over into the entire Arab world.

In Israel, Ariel Sharon, the tough man-of-the-right who perhaps had the political standing to make compromises with the Arabs, has been succeeded as prime minister by Ehud Olmert. He does not carry such weight with the Israeli electorate and is politically weaker following the costly Israeli venture into Lebanon.

In Gaza, the US and its Israeli ally had pinned their hopes on a moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded the intransigent Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But Mr. Abbas has proved to be a disappointment as president. In elections a year ago, his Fatah party was defeated by the extremist Hamas organization, which refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist. The emergence of a Hamas government shocked many nations in the West.

The US declined to deal with it, unless it recognized Israel. However, Saudi Arabia took the initiative last month in orchestrating a national unity government dominated by Hamas but also including pragmatists and independents. While the US remains leery of that government, it has singled out moderate individual cabinet ministers such as finance minister Salam Fayyad, with whom it believes it may be able to work.

However, the Saudi political brokering of the new Palestinian unity government is but one of a number of intriguing new moves by the Saudis to play a more influential role in the region. Traditionally, the Saudis have quietly used their vast oil money to buy friends and placate enemies. Now they appear to be intervening more publicly as they perceive greater threats to the stability of the region – and themselves. Hence Saudi King Abdullah's public condemnation of Hizbullah for provoking conflict in Lebanon with Israel. Then followed the king's mediation between Gaza's Hamas and Fatah factions.

The Saudi ruling regime is also watching with some dismay the apparently continuing drive in Iran, a non-Arab but Shiite Muslim country, to produce nuclear weapons. That poses a potential threat to the largely Sunni Arab world. Should Iran, despite United Nations sanctions, be able to proceed with development of nuclear weapons, that would present nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt with the question of whether they should offset that threat by developing nuclear weapons of their own.

And of course over the Islamic lands of the Middle East there looms the issue of whether they will join the modern and democratic world, taking steps in the direction of freedom, or languish in backwardness and poverty.

Egypt is apparently not to lead the way. Rice had strong words of "disappointment" over Monday's referendum, which would roll back electoral freedoms in Egypt. She was criticized in turn for "meddling" by President Hosni Mubarak and foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Clearly peace between Palestinians and Israelis would be a big plus, but it would not solve all the problems that remain.

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

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