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Timing right for new Middle East peace talks

Talk of reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks amid Arab world turmoil might seem counterintuitive, even crazy, to many Middle East watchers, but now is exactly the time to seize a rare opportunity.

Last week’s developments didn’t just uproot an entrenched dictator in Egypt. They unleashed an unprecedented wave of hope across a region where autocracy and intransigence have been constant companions.

Now is the time to make the best use of a new, optimistic Arab spirit. Long-oppressed populations are open to whatever promises an end to the stale, unmovable positions of the past. They’re tired of disappointment.

Israeli leaders are understandably nervous about the implications of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt and how it could affect the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Egypt’s ruling military council insists the treaty will remain in force.

Though Israelis cherish the treaty, they complain that, at best, only a cold peace has prevailed. Egyptians have always been reluctant to embrace a peace pact imposed on them by a dictatorship.

Even so, they are not clamoring for another painful war. The West tends to look at the 1979 treaty primarily as it concerns Israel’s security, but Egypt’s security also has been enhanced by removing the prospect of another humiliating war against Israel’s far superior military.

Jordan, likewise, has nothing to gain by tinkering with its 1994 treaty with Israel. It also is a cold peace, but peace nonetheless.

Cold peace prevails mainly because of Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ failure to achieve their own peace accord. This is where the current optimism is crucial for starting new negotiations, building off a 2008 near-deal between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is worth noting that when Palestinians in Gaza tried to organize their own pro-democracy protests last week, the Islamist Hamas government halted them. Abbas’ government, meanwhile, remained quiet as it contemplated the loss of Mubarak, a primary benefactor of Palestinian moderates.

With Hamas emerging as just another oppressor, and Abbas weakened by the loss of an ally, the Palestinian side has gained no strategic advantage. So Israel can’t argue that the timing for new talks is bad because it suddenly finds itself negotiating from a position of weakness.

It is the Arab side that is off balance. Israel’s main Arab nemesis, Syria, is particularly nervous as dictator Bashar al-Assad scrambles to avert a street revolt.

Olmert was in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday urging the Israeli leadership not to mistake Egypt’s upheaval as a reason to hunker down. “This is the time to move forward, fast,” with peace talks, he counseled his successor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Move, lead and make history. This is the time. There will not be a better one.”

(The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 15)