Joel Mowbray

HERZLIYA, ISRAEL ? ?The spirit of peace can arise again,? said Terje Rod-Larsen, the United Nations? top representative for the ?Middle East peace process,? evoking the specter of the infamous Oslo peace accords at Israel?s premier security conference recently.

That a UN official would say that is of little surprise.  But when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his deputies sounded a similar theme, more than a few mouths were agape at the Interdisciplinary Center?s annual Herzliya Conference.

Speculation about what exactly Sharon would say in his widely-covered speech Thursday night was rampant.  Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had made news two days earlier with an unmistakably upbeat speech in which he talked of normalizing relations in the not-too-distant future with ten Arab and Gulf states. 

Topping the headlines, though, was the Foreign Minister?s rhetorical olive branch to Syria.  Most remarkably?and most incredulously?Shalom seemed to accept as sincere Syria?s recent overtures.  ?Any declaration of the desire for peace by an Arab leader is a positive declaration,? he said.

Given the quasi-independence of Israel?s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many believed that Shalom had created a new policy goal at his own behest.  But when Sharon spoke Thursday night, the Prime Minister echoed Mr. Shalom, though without identifying Syria by name.

Referring to Syria, the Foreign Minister said, ?A hand outstretched for peace is not to be rejected.?  Near the end of his speech, Sharon talked of potential cooperation with ?moderate Arab states? and said: ?When faced with tranquility and a hand extended in peace, we will know how to react in tranquility and extend an honest and brave hand in return.?

Though the Sharon government?s optimism is decidedly cautious, the death of Yasser Arafat seems to have softened even the hardest of hearts.  Sharon himself was explicit in explaining his newfound buoyancy: ?The most genuine and greatest opportunity for building a new and different relationship with the Palestinians was created following the death of Yasser Arafat, who constituted the primary obstacle to peace.?

Commented one American conference participant over a drink Wednesday night: ?Everybody focused on Arafat for so long that now that he?s gone, the biggest obstacle seems to have been eliminated.?

While careful to stress that the first step in any ?process? is cessation of terrorism, even Sharon signaled the impending start of some form of talks, holding out hopes for eventually achieving ?genuine peace.?

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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