A host of developments, including some steps toward a resumed Israeli-Arab dialogue, had some in the Middle East openly talking about prospects for a renewed Arab-Israeli dialogue. Yet this glimmer of optimism plays out against a formidable backdrop of other problems, including a standoff between Britain and Iran over captured British military personnel, Israeli reports about new arms buildups by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, and continued sectarian killings in Iraq.
Still, dark as that backdrop may seem, some light entered the picture over the past week. While meeting current EU president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested he would like to convene an Israeli-Arab peace conference (Haaretz) in Jerusalem. Olmert singled out Saudi King Abdullah, an active diplomat over the past several months, in his remarks. “If the Saudi king initiates a meeting of moderate Arab states and invites me and the head of the Palestinian Authority in order to present us the Saudi ideas, we will come to hear them (al-Jazeera) and we will be glad to voice ours,” Olmert said.
Pressure on Olmert to allow some kind of new dialogue began building after the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, agreed last month to a unity government. After vowing to continue a diplomatic quarantine on the new government due to the terrorist operations of Hamas’ military wing, Olmert compromised under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week. He agreed to maintain ties (LAT) with Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Last week’s updated endorsement by the Arab League of a 2002 Saudi-led regional peace plan increased the pressure (JPost). Saudi Arabia recently picked up the mantle of Sunni Arab leadership to try to counter the spread of Iranian Shia influence throughout the region.
All of this suggests common ground emerging, says Middle East expert David Makovsky, at least among moderate Arabs, some in the Israeli government, and the so-called “Quartet”—the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. If such a conference should take place, Makovsky tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, no shortage of sticking points will bedevil it. He says foremost will be the crucial question of how the millions of Palestinians who fled or were driven from Israel since 1948 will be compensated. Dennis Ross, the former longtime U.S. Mideast envoy, writes in the Financial Times the Saudi plan should at least be seized upon as an opening, if not the finely packaged solution its Arab proponents claim it to be. Meanwhile, CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan warns in Current History of the potential for Israel-Palestinian issues to poison transatlantic relations.
True to form, however, events conspired to keep the Olmert invitation from leading the Passover editions of Israeli newspapers. Instead, breathless reports cite Israeli intelligence as saying that Syria and Hezbollah plan to strike the Golan Heights (DebkaFile) later this year. Syrian and Palestinian officials quickly denounced the offer of talks as a ruse (Ynet). In the first official response to Olmert's statement from an Arab government, a Saudi official said on April 2 that Israel must withdraw from Arab lands (BBC) before any multilateral negotiations can begin.
The State Department offers this guide to its Mideast diplomacy, and this similar guide from the European Union explains current strictures on European aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. The BBC offers this comprehensive page of analysis and archived news stories.