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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Iran fears spur efforts on Arab-Israeli peace

Iran fears spur efforts on Arab-Israeli peace

By Mark Turner at the United Nations, Guy Dinmore in Washington,and Hugh Williamson in Berlin

Published: February 2 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 2 2007 02:00

Mounting Arab concern over Iran's ambitions in the Middle East has created a new opportunity for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the United Nation's most experienced regional negotiators said ahead of Friday's quartet meeting in Washington.

Terje Roed-Larsen, speaking as head of the influential International Peace Academy but with a long history as a UN and Norwegian mediator, told the Financial Times there had been a flurry of Arab diplomacy driven by a fear of Iran and the sense that "a new peace process would be incredibly helpful to stabilise the region".

While the crises in Lebanon and Iraq, and over Iran's nuclear ambitions, presented no clear answers, there was a "very broad consensus" over a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. "In a way, it is easier to address this than the other issues," he said.

He also argued that many in the region now thought Israel was in a defensive posture, compared with Iran's more aggressive stance. The meeting of the quartet – the UN, European Union, Russia and the US – could be a "launching pad for a new process", he said.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, also intended to "build on the new dynamic in the quartet" by discussing options for Middle East peace with leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on a four-day trip to the region starting tomorrow, her foreign affairs adviser said on Thursday.

But officials close to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, said Israeli and Palestinian leaders had asked the quartet to hold back from making any concrete proposals until after the meeting between Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, and Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, expected this month. Mr Steinmeier told the FT last week he expected "the US to play a greater role in the Middle East than in the past".

The Bush administration, which has rarely shown enthusiasm for expending much more than rhetoric in tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has played down the importance of a quartet meeting that came at Germany's urging.

Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Ms Rice would outline how she saw the "process unfolding", starting with her discussions with Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas "about the political horizon".

Analysts in Washington said this diplomatic speak for final status talks reflected a positive shift in US policy and a recognition that the "road map" was stuck in the "glove compartment", as Madeleine Albright, Ms Rice's predecessor, described the stalemate this week.

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