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Richard Eisendorf

Richard Eisendorf

Posted: September 28, 2010 03:20 PM

Who Will Be the Next Sadat?

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Today, the Middle East requires a sea change. Incremental steps don't work.

The next move has to come from the Arab world. And it must be bold. A different approach is needed to break through the reticence to let go of old, ineffective positions in order to see beyond the myths of each side's narrative.

Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu took a first tentative step by resuming negotiations after a decade of deteriorating relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama characterized Abbas's resumption of peace talks as courageous -- contrasting it with the cowardly acts of violence against innocent women and children. He also encouraged the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to put actions behind their words of peace, which in the first days after talks began is already proving a challenge.

It was not insignificant that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad spoke after President Obama.

Their messages represent polar opposite viewpoints, outlooks, and even perceptions of reality. When the United States' delegation walked out of the hall amid the Iranian president's claims that 9/11 was an American plot, the gulf between them couldn't have been clearer.

Yet, Ahmedinejad cannot be dismissed as a marginal extremist. His message about a 9/11 conspiracy resonates throughout the Middle East, where polls show as many as 50% believe that Israel or the United States was responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to University of Maryland's World Public Opinion surveys.

It is up to Arab leaders to decide if Ahmedinejad speaks for them or whether there is someone among them who is bold enough to put forth a radically different vision they can back up with action.

Anwar Sadat was such a leader in 1977 when he entered the Israeli Knesset to "welcome [Israel] to live among us in peace and security." That was a game changer, which led to the first peace treaty in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At the same time, however, Sadat became a pariah in the Arab world. And ultimately, he paid with his life. Thirty-three years later, the Middle East remains burdened by violent conflict, and there has been no relief for the despair and insecurity that has characterized Palestinian-Israeli relations.

The Middle East today is a different place than it was then. America's war in Iraq has raised the stakes on US involvement in the region. American allies must manage a public that is often highly critical of American policy; and at the same time, many deny their own populations basic rights and freedoms.

Among those who side with the US are leaders who reign over the most populous and richest of nations.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is pragmatic in using his cache to cajole the parties to the negotiating table, yet is unwilling to align himself too closely with the United States or to expend too much political capital on the peace process.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is a different kind of leader. The guardian of Islam's holiest sites and procreator of Muslim schools and institutions worldwide, Saudi Arabia commands influence by its great wealth and religious conservatism, while also maintaining an increasingly close relationship with the United States. Though some of the region's most influential media is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, no one would accuse them of having a free and open society. This frees the monarchy to use its influence in ways that those who paint themselves as more populist leaders would not consider.

Saudi Arabia can lead the way to a dramatic shift in Arab-Israeli relations. And by putting its weight behind such an effort, can cause others to rethink their positions as well.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is becoming less and less amenable to incremental steps, and neither the Arab nor Israeli public would be kind to such a process. Drawn-out negotiations which are reviled by half the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships, condemned in the Arab world, and painted as traitorous in much of the region will do more to deepen divisions than bridge them.

The necessity for a different kind of leadership to come to the fore has never been more pressing.

A visionary Arab leader must step forward and put his weight behind a vision of a new Middle East, in order to transform the landscape of the conflict and open a new path to its resolution.

Saudi Arabia, this may be your cue.