Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A Middle-East Peace Conference?

Ever since the start of the year, ideas about a possible regional peace conference have been drifting about in the diplomatic atmosphere like motes in the sunlight – visible, but impossible to grasp hold of.

Most recent are reports suggesting that the US may soon propose a conference, to be attended inter alia by Lebanon and Syria, aimed at providing the Palestinians with public backing to renew direct talks with Israel. Such a move would certainly be consistent with the USA's current strategy (see the previous blog "The Mitchell Strategy 2010").

But the Obama administration is far from the only government willing, indeed eager, to act as host to a grand show on the Middle East stage. To start with, there's France.

It was back in August 2009 that President Sarkozy first proposed that a Middle East peace conference be held in Paris at the start of 2010, and actually went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. So it was no surprise when, on the 5th of January, the French Foreign Ministry invited the world's press to Paris to announce that France really meant it. France, the media were told, would like to be "available" to host an international conference on the Middle East peace process focused on re-launching peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel. To resume the peace process between the two foes, they declared, was one of France's priorities.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner then flew off to Cairo to attend a meeting of the Mediterranean Union, where he discussed details of the proposed conference with other participating ministers.

No sooner had he returned to Paris, than US envoy George Mitchell arrived to urge "a combined and concerted effort and partnership" with US allies, including France, towards resuming the peace negotiations that broke down in December 2008. Kouchner and Mitchell, it was reported, also discussed the French proposal to host a Middle East peace conference in due course.  No details were released.

Meanwhile another contender had thrown a hat into the ring – Russia. In an apparent effort to get Russia on board for a Quartet call to immediate negotiations, Israel's President Shimon Peres approached Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to say that Russian involvement was critical for the peace process.

"In light of Russia's status," said Peres, "it can help build the confidence between the two sides."

Reports from Jerusalem later indicated that Medvedev had pledged that Russia would do everything it could to contribute to the process – including hosting a Middle East peace conference.

But all this while a sort of Middle East peace conference – little known, and rarely reported – has been up and running, hosted by Egypt.

The "Alexandria Process" is an initiative which brings together senior Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders in an effort to work together to promote a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to continue inter-faith dialogue. The process began early in the new millennium under the auspices of George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who responded to a request by then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to try to convene a dialogue of religious leaders. The Alexandria Declaration was signed in January 2002 by 14 religious leaders: 6 Rabbis, 4 Sheiks and 4 Bishops or their representatives.

The most recent Alexandria Process conference was a three-day event held in Cairo in the middle of January. It was attended by more than 30 Palestinian Muslim religious leaders – and by two rabbis from Israel. During the event, Osama El-Baz, senior aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reiterated the Egyptian government's support for the Alexandria Process. Cairo, El-Baz told participants, is concerned by the ongoing stagnation in the peace process.

"From the moment there is no diplomatic progress," he declared, "the extremists from both sides are liable to erupt."

Wise words.

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