This afternoon I attended a fascinating conversation with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa hosted by the Carnegie Endowment and moderated by the Washington Post's David Ignatius. It wasn't quite as exciting as the last time they were together (at Davos, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off the stage in protest against Ignatius not giving him time to respond to Shimon Peres). But it was quite interesting nevertheless as an insight into where the canny and well-placed Moussa thinks the region is heading.
Moussa, who is just wrapping up a few days of meetings in Washington, went out of his way to express his feelings of hope for the coming period. I've seen and talked to Moussa often enough to know that he would have absolutely no problem saying the opposite if that's what he thought. When pushed as to what concrete things the Obama administration had said or done to deserve such optimism, Moussa singled out the appointement of George Mitchell -- who he described as the "personification of the honest broker" -- as the most important signal that the Obama administration was serious about changing American policy towards the region.
Moussa also expressed his hopes for the Fatah-Hamas talks set to resume tomorrow in Cairo. He pointed out that representatives of the two sides had been speaking informally for weeks, and that both recognized that they would all lose everything if they failed to come together. I'm a bit less optimistic, I must say. There's been a lot of public sniping between the two over the last few days. And this morning I had a long conversation with a senior leader of the Jordanian Islamic Action Front, who seemed very skeptical about the talks because of Cairo's strong anti-Hamas bias. We'll see.
Moussa emphasized that the Arab Peace Initiative was still on the table, and encouraged talks on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. He had nothing but scathing words for the Bush administration's Annapolis process, though, which he described as empty talk used simply to procrastinate while Israel continued to seize land and build settlements. He showed no interest in another lengthy "peace process" with no time frame for resolution, and returned repeatedly to the settlements issue.
What about Netanyahu? He didn't seem to think that the Israeli elections changed very much. What had three years of Kadima government brought the Palestinians? More settlements, meaningless negotiations, and the massacre in Gaza. At least Netanyahu would reject peace right away, he quipped, and not waste everyone's time. Interestingly, the Jordanian IAF leader said virtually the same thing -- suggesting how widespread this view is across the Arab political spectrum. Moussa repeatedly stressed the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the region's problems, though, and urged the U.S. to engage again as an honest broker and to move quickly.
Moussa didn't bite when Ignatius suggested that Arab leaders were urging the U.S. to be tougher on Iran and to hold off on the promised dialogue. On the contrary, he responded, for the last few years it has been the Americans coming to the Arabs and talking up the Iran threat and not the other way around. He acknowledged Arab concerns about Iran, but concluded that the Arabs and Iran would have to learn how to co-exist. As to the Iranian nuclear program, Moussa would only talk about the double-standard surrounding Israeli nuclear weapons.
Oh, and guess who received high praise from both Amr Moussa and the Islamic Action Front leader? Turkey and Erdogan. That's a very interesting convergence, I'd say --and suggests the growing regional role that Turkey seems to be playing.
Photo: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images