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A homemade Mideast peace

May 26, 2008|Barbara Slavin | Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."

You know something interesting is happening in the Middle East when a major peace agreement is brokered by Qatar. This tiny emirate (population 900,000) has accomplished what the United States, France, the United Nations and the Arab League failed to do: get Lebanon's chronically feuding factions to agree to a deal that will at least give the country a temporary government and allow Qataris and other Gulf Arabs to spend their summer in Beirut without worrying about being caught in another civil war.

Americans who have followed the Middle East for decades and lost any optimism that the region can ever resolve its chronic conflicts should feel good for a change about what is happening these days. Instead of complaining about a lack of U.S. leadership (or evenhandedness), the region is trying to solve problems on its own.

While Qatar was pacifying Lebanon, Turkey was attempting to mediate a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. That effort, which has been going on for months, is a long shot, and its initial progress may have more to do with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's desire to distract attention from corruption charges against him than any real prospect of Israel withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But it also reflects Israel's recognition that it cannot afford to wait for a new U.S. administration to breach a tightening circle of hostility formed by Hamas, a Lebanon in which Hezbollah has veto power and a Syria in the arms of Tehran.

Meanwhile, Saudi King Abdullah has invited former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani to an "Islamic dialogue conference" in Mecca at the end of June. Even as they exchange hostile rhetoric, Saudi Arabia and Iran also have been talking about trying to ease Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon and Iraq. Saudi Arabia also has tried to mediate between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as has Yemen, not exactly known as a diplomatic powerhouse. Egypt, a durable diplomatic heavyweight, has been working for months to arrange a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

These developments are not an argument for U.S. neglect. Ultimately, the United States needs to be involved in the region, if for nothing else to guarantee Israel's security. A U.S. imprimatur for peace deals, if not a signing ceremony on the White House lawn, can only be for the good. But what the Bush administration has inadvertently shown is that a policy of neglect and choosing sides -- seeking to isolate those one does not like -- can produce unforeseen good results by forcing other countries to act as mediators.

Perhaps after all the war and bloodshed between Arabs and Israelis, Americans and Arabs, Persians and Arabs, and Arabs and Arabs, the Middle East is collectively saying: Enough.

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