By all accounts this is a particularly favourable moment in the Holy Land - this morning, that is, and one hopes this evening and tomorrow morning too! The factors that combine to make it so are many and varied, yet the meaning of their confluence is universally recognised. Among other things, Mr. Shimon Peres has just been sworn in as the President of the State of Israel, and though this is an almost entirely ceremonial post, the new President's explicit commitment to advance freedom for the Palestinian People - and peace between Israel and the future Palestinian State - looks certain to be a major influence on the public conversation in Israel.
On the Palestinian side, President Abbas is apparently working to distinguish once more the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the Palestinian Authority (PA), and to make more visible than in recent years the exclusive mandate of the PLO, not the PA, to negotiate peace with Israel, and to handle international affairs generally. He is just in time: Until the armed action by Hamas in Gaza recently, the plan (that he himself had agreed to) was to let Hamas and other Islamist movements into the PLO itself, thereby bringing about a genetic mutation of this secular national movement - something that would have complicated enormously the task of peacemakers, and might not have augured well for the prospects of the future Palestinian State being both secular and democratic.
But most of all what makes this a favourable moment is the fact that, on16 July, the President of the United States announced a major new commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. As many had hoped and suggested, the President - who has only about another year and a half to the end of his second and last term in office -has now decided that his legacy must include this decisive new initiative. If successful (and failure is not option here!) it will rightly bear his name. The U.S. then becomes the engine that drives the search for the peace treaty, as well as the Power that is to preside over negotiating and implementing it. President Bush announced quite specifically that it will be his Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, who will chair, preside over, the relevant "international meeting" in the autumn. To anyone who has been following - with sadness mingled with hope - the useless bloodshed and destruction of the past seven years (almost), since that fateful 28 September 2000, this news is a cause of inexpressible consolation. Placing the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations within the supportive framework of an international conference has often been suggested, but not so far acted on - by the only Government that matters for this purpose, the US, but not even by Europe. Where, for example, is the joint initiative announced with such fanfare not very long ago by France, Spain and Italy, to convene a peace conference? Now the US is moving ahead.
Not much is yet publicly known about the President's precise plans, which are probably - inevitably - still evolving, in dialogue with all interested parties. It is generally understood that key member States of the Arab League will be asked to attend, countries like Egypt and Jordan, which already have peace treaties with Israel, as well as - possibly - others, like Saudi Arabia, which are particularly engaged in promoting the Arab League's historic peace initiative, first launched at the 2002 Beirut Summit and repeatedly reconfirmed, and refined, since then. In Israel, the Olmert Government, has now taken a much more positive approach to the Arab initiative, and this too is a very hopeful sign.
There are those who insist that purely bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be had, or cannot be made secure, unless peace is made at the same time between Israel and Syria (which means also between Israel and Lebanon). Some very prominent Israelis, including a former head of military intelligence and other senior figures in the defence and security sector, as well as politicians and commentators, believe that this is the case, and that Israel would do well to accept Syria's repeated invitation to re-started the peace negotiations between the two Nations. It would certainly be a tremendous contribution if the autumn's peace conference took up again the goals of the 1991 Madrid Conference. There, the goal was peace between Israel and all her Arab neighbours, achieved through direct bilateral negotiations helped by solid, firm, systematic and generous international support. Syria is a member of the Madrid Conference, and it would therefore be natural for it to be invited to any international peace meeting that seeks to build on that all-important foundation. As is well known, Israel's Government raises a number of very serious objections to what it perceives to be Syria's current conduct in certain areas, and is concerned that negotiating with it might be seen as acquiescing in such conduct. This is, of course, understandable. Yet the proponents -within Israel too - of negotiating with Syria are never tired of pointing out that "you make peace with enemies," and only because they are in fact behaving like enemies! Otherwise, it is pointed out, if the other Party were already "well-behaved", it would be quite unnecessary to negotiate peace! The debate within Israel is continuing - it is serious minded and all participants recognise the good faith and reasonableness of each. This is how a mature democracy will make its decisions.
In view of the ultimate goal, in any case, participation by Syria and Lebanon, as well as by PLO, the Arab League, the European Union, leading European States - and other Powers willing to make a real contribution - will greatly enhance the value and effectiveness of the international meeting that the President announced for the autumn, and /( or of the meetings that will follow it.
A thing to remember for planners and participants: The objective is PEACE, not "the peace process" (as it has sometimes seemed over the last few years). Concrete, purposeful, focused negotiations on a peace treaty, which includes a realistic time-line for its progressive implementation on the ground.
President Shimon Peres said it all in his interview with an international press agency, just before he took the oath: Israel does not want, and cannot permit itself, to continue indefinitely to rule the Palestinian territories. We owe it to ourselves, first of all: It is not compatible with Israel's own values to be an occupier. Israel wants and needs to be able to put an end to this anomaly, President Peres insisted, explicitly, just as he was about to begin his arduous mission. And all persons of good will everywhere applauded with approval and relief.