WASHINGTON -- Just when the Iraq war looks to be at its worst, just after Yasser Arafat has died and the Israelis are still attacking Gaza, just when everybody has about given up hope for any peace settlement, there are, seemingly overnight, some positive signs on the Middle East horizon. What has happened? Dare one hope? Dare one expect that these new indicators for peace could finally be real?
Undeniably, within the last week, a series of events, mostly initiated by an increasingly impatient Egypt, have revealed an astonishing new veneer on the ugly problem of Israel and Palestine.
The events, obviously some time in the preparation, showered upon us this week like unexpected spring rain. On Dec. 3, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the Palestinians' "best hope for peace." Then it became public, after months of quiet negotiation, that Egypt and Israel are going to open no fewer than seven "Qualified Industrial Zones" (QIZs) on the two countries' borders.
Finally, we learned that not only Egypt, but also Tunisia, Oman and Morocco may send their ambassadors, recalled in 2000, back to Israel.
These developments are the result of months of negotiation in Jerusalem involving Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and the Sharon government; they are also the result of Egypt's impatience with the old Palestinian leadership and Egyptian support for Palestinian moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas. And they are the result of Prime Minister Sharon's showdown with his own Likud Party and his attempts to form a unity government with leftist Labor in order to get out of Gaza.
Leading Arab diplomats I have spoken to here and overseas were abnormally optimistic. They said things such as, "There is agreement on both sides that it is time to move," and "Let's start business now," but then, the warning: "But to make it work, the Americans have to set a date for withdrawal from Iraq."
In the political kabuki of Middle East symbolic moves, the first real indicator of something in the air came on Dec. 5, when Egypt released an Israeli convicted of spying some years ago and Israel freed six young Egyptian infiltrators. At about the same time, it was reported that, in place of the usual police, Egypt had agreed to deploy 750 special border guards along the Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinian arms smuggling. Then the State Department announced for the Bush administration that it tentatively backed Britain's plan for an international Middle East peace conference in London after the Palestinian leadership elections on Jan. 9.
The "business" part of these deals is especially revealing. While negotiations through the American trade representative have been going on between Egypt and Israel for some time about the QIZs (industrial zones along both borders employing Arab labor and Israel's trade entrance into the United States), the details only became semi-public this week. The Egyptian position was that there must be some economic dividend to their involvement in the Palestinian question, and now there will be: Officials predict the seven new industrial zones will provide 50,000 new jobs, an income to the country of $1 billion over the next five years, and an opening to foreign investment, tourism and support for small and medium businesses.
The most exciting summation of what is happening came from the reliable "Middle East Peace Report" of Americans for Peace Now, the liberal peace group. In its Dec. 6 issue, it reports: "The Israeli Foreign Ministry doesn't remember such an atmosphere in a long time. The Foreign Ministry believes that after elections for the Palestinian Authority are held and prior to the implementation of disengagement, there will be a breakthrough in Israel's relations with Arab countries. Jerusalem officials mention Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Jordan as candidates for reinstating their ambassadors. There may also be agreements to establish diplomatic relations with the gulf states with which secret contacts have been held in recent months."
Palestinian sources warn against expecting too much -- surely astute advice. Some Arabs admit hesitantly that the Iraq war has jarred the whole area into a new mood. But for now, the part Iraq has played in these changes remains as uncertain as any future American "disengagement" there. In fact, with the death of Arafat and his generation and with the re-election of George Bush, all the former equations are up in the air.
So it is a pregnant moment, and one to watch. The conflict HAD to end sometime -- or so, until now, we always helplessly thought.
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