The United States, Israel and key Arab players see a new Palestinian-Israeli peace process being formally launched on Wednesday as offering a bulwark against rising Islamist extremism.
Though wary of dealing with the United States and its close ally Israel, the secular Palestinian leadership and Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia did indeed make it here on Tuesday.
In doing so, they echoed some of the same concerns of their US hosts: without a viable peace process, the rough neighborhood of West Asia will descend only further into religious extremism, chaos and violence.
“Stagnation in the peace process has increased the appeal for extremist ideologies. Feelings of despair and frustration have reached a dangerously high level,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told delegates.
“It is time to bring this conflict to an end, and to enable the people of the region to divert their energies from war and destruction to peace and development,” he said.
“Our region must be kept from sliding into turmoil and chaos,” he said, adding that “all the children of Abraham” — Jews, Christians and Muslims — should be able to live together.
Even though he pressed Israel to meet the demands of a Saudi-sponsored initiative, his mere presence was a coup for US diplomacy because Saudi Arabia has never attended such a high-level gathering on peace-making with Israel.
And some of his words must have struck a chord with host US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Bush said the new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations being inaugurated Wednesday at the White House will offer the Palestinians “an alternative vision for the future, a vision of peace, a homeland of their own, and a better life.”
“If responsible Palestinian leaders can deliver on this vision, they will deal the forces of extremism a devastating blow,” he said, conjuring up a free democratic Palestine that “inspires millions” across West Asia.
US officials gleefully pointed out those absent from the conference were Iran and the hardline groups it supports — the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
In launching a new push for peace, the United States wants to enlist moderate Arab states to isolate Iran, whose influence has risen following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
In their speeches to the conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas offered a similar assessment of what was driving extremism in the Palestinian territories.