Good Vibes from the Mideast?

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You may not have felt the earth moving beneath your feet. Yet, some officials attending the four-way summit of Israeli and Arab leaders at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh this week sensed a paradigm shift in the making. The way toward Israeli-Palestinian peace has been blocked for years, by Palestinian violence, Israeli unilateralism and American disengagement. But the peacemakers are saying they have been shaken out of their slumber by a recent series of events — for the moment at least.

Here's the sequence they say constitutes their wake-up call: the year 2006 witnessed Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections and Hizballah's summer war with Israel, both signs of a dramatic rise in Iran's influence; then came the coup de grace earlier this month, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip by force of arms, causing the collapse of the Palestinian national unity government. As the optimists now see it, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on Monday has united Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas (and its Iranian backer), all in a determination to forge ahead toward a final settlement of the 59-year-old conflict.

There is some merit in this rosy outlook. An Arab participant in the summit tells TIME that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "used language we haven't heard before — a commitment that we can work with him to develop a time-line for political negotiations aimed at final [agreement].”

Olmert made two announcements to demonstrate his good intentions. He said that Israel would begin releasing a good portion of the $700 million in withheld tax revenues that Palestinians say Israel owes the Palestinian Authority. He also said he'd seek cabinet approval for the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners who don't have Jewish blood on their hands. In his public statement at the summit, Olmert said he saw "a chance for peace" and does not intend "to let this opportunity pass us by." A senior Arab diplomat interprets Olmert's remarks as meaning the Israeli leader "realizes there is a new opportunity and he needs to take advantage of it."

On the Arab side, the summit constituted a resounding vote of support for Abbas as a worthy partner for peace and a repudiation of Hamas' rejectionist agenda. The summit effectively ostracized Hamas from the Arab fold, warning that it will have no future political role in Palestine if it does not accept the rules of democracy and reverse its coup against Abbas' authority in Gaza. In the view of Arab optimists, Abbas now more fully understands the danger that Hamas represents to his own leadership as well as the Palestinians' future. All of this represents a strengthening consensus behind the peace process not seen since negotiations collapsed with the election of hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in early 2001.

But, as even the optimists agree, it is not enough. Some Arab diplomats point to Olmert's poor track record when it comes to fulfilling agreements, expressing skepticism that he will deliver his summit promises of money and prisoner releases much less a return to serious peace negotiations. "Let's wait and see what's going to happen," says a senior Arab diplomat. "God knows whether it will get implemented or not." Without real progress in the peace process, he points out, Hamas will regain political support at Abbas' expense.

Another potential obstacle lies among the Arabs: disagreement over how to handle Hamas. That quabbling that could eventually distract the parties from their main aim of getting Israeli-Palestinian talks back on track. Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and did not attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, seeks to restore Palestinian unity along the lines of the Saudi-mediated Mecca Agreement that led to a power-sharing government comprised of Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party. Jordan's King Abdullah, however, is adamant that Hamas be excluded to give Abbas more freedom of action — and also not to alienate Olmert or the Bush Administration, which refuse dealings with Hamas. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in the middle: while in no hurry to reward Hamas for its Gaza takeover, he nonetheless believes that Hamas will eventually be a spoiler if kept out of power altogether.

The biggest question is how the Bush administration will respond to the new opportunity. In the Arab view, the U.S. must now encourage or pressure Olmert for the concessions —on withdrawal from the West Bank, for example — needed to achieve a historic settlement with the Palestinians. Even the optimists acknowledge that decisive U.S. re-engagement in the peace process is anything but a sure bet. "What we are hoping is that the Americans will get active and find that this is a real platform," says a senior Arab diplomat. "We are hoping that Bush will say something or will do something, so people know that he is actively engaged. If you really want to get something done, this is the time for you to come and do it." But all action at this point may be futile. A pessimist in Arab diplomatic ranks offers this view. "I think we all need to learn patience," he said. "We have to take care of our own affairs for another one and a half years, until a new American president takes office."