From The Times
June 19, 2008
Plan for peace in Middle East made without help of the White House
Commentary: Richard Beeston: Foreign Editor
For the past four decades two unshakeable principles have decided the fate of the tortuous search for peace in the Middle East.
As any veteran diplomat of the "peace process" will tell you, no progress can be achieved without the full weight of the White House and the commitment of a strong Israeli government prepared to make painful territorial concessions.
This was true at Camp David, when Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat penned the first land-for-peace deal. A decade later it was true when Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on their agreement in the White House Rose Garden.
Until only a few days ago, the chaos in the Middle East illustrated perfectly why these rules still applied.
Israel, led by the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's crumbling coalition Government, was locked in a bloody cycle of violence with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group controlling Gaza. The two sides traded daily rocket and missile fire, leading to a sharp rise in civilian casualties with no prospects for a solution. Many expected an Israeli punitive ground attack.
To the north, Israel and Hezbollah, the extremist Shia Muslim militia, exchanged regular threats. Many observers predicted another round of violence, picking up where the two sides left off after the bruising Lebanon war in the summer of 2006.
Behind these tensions lay Israel's implacable foe Syria, which was attacked last year by Israeli aircraft after intelligence suggested that Damascus was attempting to build a nuclear facility.
Despite President Bush's very public efforts to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before the end of the year, few believed his weakened Administration would be able to deliver anything concrete.
Yet almost without a warning the region has been transformed. Today Israel and Hamas will implement an agreement brokered by Egypt for a six-month truce in Gaza. If the ceasefire holds, Israel in turn has agreed to ease its blockade over the troubled enclave.
The breakthrough, after a year of fighting, was followed soon afterwards by two more important moves.
France, which under President Sarkozy has been working hard to rebuild ties with Damascus, announced that a meeting might take place between President Assad of Syria and Mr Olmert, who are both invited to Paris for the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations. The rapprochement follows weeks of Turkish mediation between Israeli and Syrians officials. Simultaneously Israel offered to begin peace talks with Lebanon to resolve an outstanding border dispute.
The peace overture coincided with reports of an imminent prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, brokered by the German Government.
There is suddenly hope that some of the thorniest outstanding issues in the region could be resolved. The prize could mean an end to the Israeli-Syrian struggle, which has caused turmoil across the region.
The impact could be enormous. Any peace moves between the two neighbours would immediately help to rehabilitate Syria and isolate its militant ally Iran, regarded by many as the major threat to peace in the region.
Whatever the outcome, the old rules will have to be rewritten. It was Egyptian, Turkish, German and French officials who were instrumental in this process. They have succeeded where the Bush Administration has so far failed.
As for Mr Olmert, he faces serious corruption allegations and could even be charged and stand trial. His coalition Government may only have days left in power before it collapses. Some suspect that making peace is the only way that the Prime Minister can cling on to power.
Whatever his motivation, he has demonstrated that peace can be forged from a position of weakness as easily as from a position of strength.
© Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.