Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Shifting Politics Bring Arabs and Israelis Closer

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Shifting Politics Bring Arabs and Israelis Closer

Article excerpt

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. …

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